Donald Trump showed that the media is helpless against a bald-faced lie proudly stated, and the Liberal party under Scott Morrison has applied the lesson so well you would almost suggest that lying was an innate ability of those within the party.
‘Proud lying’ is a profound oxymoron that cannot be a good thing especially because the people are as helpless against it as the media.
There is something going on in this post-truth world where we are more likely to give in to our emotions than to question what triggered them.
The definition of post-truth is as relating to a situation in which people are more likely to accept an argument based on their emotions and beliefs, rather than one based on facts.
What on earth went wrong.
When did the school kid, who was told facts and learnt from the books that were written in good faith on what was known at the time and wrote down the facts in exams, not need to know those facts anymore? When did it become acceptable to not only lie but to believe a lie?
This is a subtle point.
It is one thing to lie. That takes a certain moral code or lack of one and to lie well, with conviction and believability, that takes a certain lack of empathy because those lies are going to hurt people. But we know these people exist, we call them psychopaths.
It takes something else to believe the lies. What makes people ignore the truth, deny the facts and accept the bald-faced lies? One reason could be that their insecurity is so deep that they are unable to cope with uncomfortable truths. Another could be the need to feel great and when the liar is geeing everything up and giving you a great feeling, why not run with that.
Then there is cognitive dissonance — the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioural decisions and attitude change — where internal conflict produces a feeling of mental discomfort leading to an alteration in one of the attitudes, beliefs or behaviours to reduce the discomfort and restore balance.
I will believe the lie because it makes me feel better.
This believing in the lie is as big a problem as the lies, if not the problem.
A liar only gets what they need if there is a believer at the end of it. So the populist leaders who are lying through their teeth all the time are still doing it because there are people who respond to those lies.
The solution to this problem is not to berate the media for following the public and giving them what they seem to want. Remember the media is in it for the profit. Clicks and eyeballs make a profit, so the media simply does what it takes to get them.
Also worth remembering is why clicks and eyeballs make a profit. It leads people to goods and services that other people want them to buy. That is still the commercial model where marketing makes sales.
People like to berate that too but that is the commercial model and has been since forever.
No, the solution to all the lies is to get off the couch and go click somewhere else.
Become a sceptic.
Don’t believe them.
Don’t give them your eyeballs and your clicks.
Please pass this on to your social networks. The world could do with a few more healthy sceptics.
The Washington Post fact check column has been following the false or misleading claims Donald Trump has made while in office.
Recall that he has been in the Oval Office since 20th January 2017 which to the 7th July 2020 is 1,264 days or roughly 30,336 hours.
Now in those three and a half years, how many porkies would you say was reasonable. One a week, one a day?
This is the POTUS we are talking about.
The incumbent in one of the highest-profile leadership positions in the world where integrity and a certain amount of honesty would be desirable. This is the white house where some credibility, some respect for the office, some leadership are part of the job description. Most Americans might expect at least that from their president, some level of decorum.
Leave aside for the moment that the incumbent in the oval office also has the code to the red button that can unleash mayhem on the planet that would last for centuries.
So how many little white ones did the Washington Post journalists count?
Twenty thousand. That is a 2 followed by four zeros, a little shy of 16 a day, one every 90 minutes.
Now we have all been ‘economical with the truth’, told the odd white one, even a few of the grey variety perhaps. Justified often because we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. Indeed the Ricky Gervais movie The Invention of Lying was startling because it showed how often we tell a fib or two. It is part of human nature.
But 16 a day, each and every day for the whole time you are in office.
What does it take to tell that many lies? That many false or misleading claims?
Compulsive liars have very little control over their lying. They may be saying the same lies as the pathological liar, but their intent is different. Usually compulsive liars lie out of habit. They have no goal in lying, but they cannot stop. Compulsive lying may be relatively harmless, but is still alarming to those who witness this behavior. They lie with such consistency that they are usually discovered by others in their social circle.
Alright so Donald Trump might have a habit of lying, a pattern so ingrained he cannot stop doing it. Why would he if it got him into office? He was outed as a liar but it has not affected him at all. Indeed the Washington Post journalists report that the frequency of lying has increased in recent months up to 80 per day currently three months out from an election.
What about the pathological liar? Psyche central again…
The difference between pathological and compulsive liars is thin, but distinct. The intention of pathological liars differs from compulsive liars when their sense of empathy is questioned. Pathological liars demonstrate little care for others and tend to be manipulative in other aspects of their life. They lie with such conviction that at times, pathological liars can actually believe the lies they tell. Pathological lying is frequently found in personality disorders such as Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, and Antisocial Personality Disorder.
More sinister certainly. Manipulative and with little care for others. They believe the lies they tell. And if the lie is believed by the teller then it ceases to be a lie; a convoluted logic that is only smoothed out if the recipients are diligent and sceptical.
As we get closer to the election Trump is cranking it up. Not only is the frequency going up but so is the intensity.
Whilst he used to say it was the best economy in US history, lately that little porky has grown into s stall sow who has achieved ‘the best economy in the history of the world’.
If this is the way to get re-elected then heaven help us all.
Our prime ministers and premiers wield far less power than most people believe… Instead, power is distributed across multiple actors – business leaders, media, unions, peak bodies and political factions in addition to the individual political leaders. Most leaders today operate a never-ending mental calculus of how they accommodate the competing demands of these groups in a way that will extend their period of office. Simple as that.
David Hetherington, Senior Fellow at Per Capita
Succinctly put Mr Hetherington. Our political captains are not the only hands on the tiller. Indeed they are arguably not able to move the tiller at all.
At least that is what we thought until they told us to go home and shut the door, which almost all of us did without blinking.
So, yes they are powerless in the face of competing demands when their primary objective is to stay in office. And they really like it in office, it feeds their egos that have voracious appetites. But no, they are not without power. They told us to jump and we said, “how high?”.
This was a fascinating response.
Clearly we were spooked by a nasty virus that at best would make us sick or could signal the end, if not for us, then grandpa. It made sense to stay home and bake.
Only something similar happened in the early 1930’s in Germany.
People were spooked by a massive and disastrous global recession that for the Germans meant that foreign investors, who had come in to help rebuild an economy battered by WWI and the reparations that followed, left in a hurry, taking their money with them, the Americans who are always sniffing an opportunity in particular.
Along came a political opportunist and mesmerising public speaker who exhorted the German people to jump and they did. History tells us what happened next.
Before this connection turns you off as completely nonsensical. Pause for a moment.
The people who jumped back in the 1930s were highly educated, well to do citizens, familiar with success and a high standard of living that they enjoyed in the boom period of the 1920s.
They believed they were living in a democracy and that their leaders had their best interests and the country at heart. They also knew that somebody needed to take tough decisions to deal with what was spooking them; the prospect of economic ruin.
The point is that modern politics may well be at the mercy of multiple actors, especially those with money, but it is not entirely toothless. Leaders can turn on a dime and make remarkable things happen. Not all of them nice or in our best long term interests.
Even if our politicians were genius-level decision-makers, the global disturbance from this pandemic will deliver recessions and depressions with horrible suffering for those already struggling. They will be joined by way too many folks who have not known unemployment, perhaps experiencing it for the first time in their adult lives.
My buddy and I applied for over 100 jobs each in a little competition to see who could land one first. We both failed and ended up in further education seeking higher degrees to help us along, he in atmospheric physics, me in ecology. So smart enough but not employable enough. It seems a long time ago now but it was a real struggle at the time. One in ten was felt by everyone.
When unemployment reaches 14% we are at one in 7.
When it reaches 20% we are at one in 5
These are the numbers of serious discontent.
If at least one dude in the round at the pub is unemployed, there is unrest among all the pub-goers. At any moment any one of them will join the queue for the dole check.
This, of course, is what is driving the political decisions to lift restrictions. Unrest is never pleasant. But to lift them only to go back to the ‘simple as that’ would be a massive opportunity missed.
Alright, enough doom and gloom.
Here is a slightly brighter note.
A new normal
This would be very nice.
How about the renewal of safety nets some redistribution of wealth to pay for it and much greater attention to issues that affect all of us.
Only we can’t expect that to come from the politicians who are telling us every day about stage 2 or stage 3 restrictions and when they might be lifted to get everyone back to normal. The one that we just left behind, potentially forever.
The politicians need normal to be what it was otherwise their juggle among the vested interests will be too hard and the balls will fall.
Unless they have got it all wrong.
There is an idea going around that Modern Monetary Theory might offer an alternative, a radical economic theory that budget deficits are are good, not bad and that government debt is necessary as the source of healthy economic growth. The idea is that investments that enhance productivity such as better health, greater knowledge and skills, improved transport are worth funding, even if it results in a budget deficit.
The theory is that spending is necessary to put money into the economy before governments can tax or borrow. Government spending actually precedes taxation. Then taxation is used to keep everyone in employment.
In Covid times this sounds like a plan.
And it presents a way to avoid a rapid return to political influence from business and the peak bodies that they pay to cheer for them with unstinting help from their media lackeys.
Wouldn’t that be nice?
If you enjoyed this post or even if it made you cringe, post about it. I don’t mind.
I have this hunch that people in modern society can be very brave. They would jump in front of a bus to save a child or beat off a shark from attacking their mate on his surfboard or chase down a thief to retrieve an old lady’s handbag or any number of dangerous gestures.
Only I think they lack courage.
Brave but not courageous. Let me explain.
Way back on 14 August 1861 one hundred years almost to the day before I was born, the New York Times published an article entitled Courage and Cowardice in which the reporter wrote
A man may be brave, absolutely fearless, and yet lack courage; not moral courage, but physical courage of the higher kind. Indeed, the man who does not know the sensation of fear (and there are men so constituted) can never be truly courageous
The idea here is that bravery is the ability to confront something painful or difficult or dangerous without any fear, most often because the fear is unknown or not felt.
This can be instinctual such as hitting a shark on the nose or somewhat calculated when running after the thief. Either way, it is an ego-driven response, more instinct than rational.
Courage is the ability to confront something painful or difficult or dangerous despite any fear.
This means there is usually time to think through the consequences and to know that they are likely to be painful or contain a risk that should be avoided if possible.
This distinction suggests that the brave soul is somewhat blase, maybe not sure what is coming and yet will jump over the rim of the trench into the enemy fire. The courageous soul is fully aware of the impending doom and is scared shitless but goes over the lip anyway.
Now suppose that the prevalence of bravery is greater than courage.
More people are throwing themselves fearlessly into the fire than those who hesitate before they do.
What does this look like for a society?
The brave souls
The brave souls do not understand why the courageous might hesitate. They do not see why they should be fearful. All they need is some bravery for goodness sake.
Anyway, what is there to worry about? There is nothing to fear. The fearful are weak, namby-pamby types who pretend there is something to be frightened about just so they can claim they are courageous. God help us. That will never get anything done. If we were fearful we’d never have left the forest for the savanna or Africa for the riches of the world.
And anyway, when the heat is on, courage fails so many. I mean they just land in a heap of quivering blubber on the floor or try to hide on the inside of a huge tub of icecream too frightened to move.
No, we need brave souls, the fearless warriors, the ones who give victory and can come back to sing of their heroic acts.
The courageous souls
Well, bravery is certainly useful. But courage is the purer attribute. It takes more self-control, more to overcome, and, well, more courage to be courageous than brave.
What is coming is known or the possible consequences are, especially the likelihood of pain and suffering and the feelings of that pain. This is not an easy thing to overcome. It takes great personal fortitude to do it.
The courageous souls have looked fear in the eye and done it anyway. The brave cannot claim such a conquering of fear. They have not even seen it. They still have to face fear, still have to deal with that horror confrontation and so, despite their actions, they are actually fearful creatures. They are often consumed by fear with reckless acts as their only salve.
A society dominated by the brave may win wars but is unlikely to gain much empathy or decide a social safety net is a good idea or even introduce a universal income.
A society dominated by the courageous could still win the wars after exhausting all the possible alternative solutions to avoid conflict and much more likely to introduce social policies.
More importantly than this, the courageous know themselves. They have looked at the fear and freaked out. They have panicked and been shaken to their boots. Then they went over the lip into the enemy fire.
There really is something noble in that.
Brave but not courageous
Returning to the origins premise that modern society has plenty of bravery but not much courage is backed up by any number of current laments, many on this blog.
We have populist leaders who commend bravery to their followers in the form of hatreds and tweets that say ‘yes, it’s fine to point that semi-automatic rifle at a protester’.
They don’t ask for too much courage though. To take some pain for the greater good.
We have traditional media that sensationalise everything, the bravery response and make cuts to journalism that analyses and asks pointy questions about the future.
We have social media that is designed for the brave — remember we said they were actually fearful souls — to slander, troll and generally act the macho with no consequence whatsoever.
And, and, and….
So here we go. Let’s get a dose of courage added to the COVID-19 vaccine injections. Have a herd immunity to bravery and get us some of that 1860’s ‘physical courage of the higher kind’.
Ever wondered if the POTUS and his family were rorting the system?
Do you think he might be? Yep, I think we all have our suspicions. I’m not talking about the ability to leverage notoriety to go on lecture tours or sell autobiographies. We allow that sort of thing as a small ‘thank you for your service’ along with the secrete service costs of keeping him and his family safe
A small aside here is that former Australian prime minister John Howard is often seen strolling around the CBD of Sydney en route to his office in the MLC building. No police, no bodyguard, just his unmistakable self. I have seen him half a dozen times.
Anyway back to the current POTUS.
Maybe he is just getting ready to use his notoriety to go a step or two further than a book tour to plunder the relationships his position affords for a slice of oil pipelines, hotels, golf resorts, towers and whatever else might make a bob or two, in parts of the world where such things are still twee.
Yes, I think so too.
Not a good look at best and worse, an abuse of his position. That is before we get into the back end deals that might be going down as we speak.
Obviously he doesn’t care a jot about our puny thoughts. Our indignation at his abuse of power. Here is some evidence of just how little he cares.
The number of family trips taken during his tenure is through the roof compared to his predecessor, like an order of magnitude larger.
Admittedly he has a huge extended family in the white house, all jumping around in unelected positions, but really, an order of magnitude more trips with the secret service in attendance.
Only this number, 16 thousand billion, is so large as to be beyond comprehension
Put a dollar sign in front of it and you get the United States national debt.
As of December 31, 2018, debt held by the public was $16.1 trillion and intragovernmental holdings were $5.87 trillion, for a total of $21.97 trillion.
Don’t you just love credit?
The ‘buy now pay later’ attitude that generates a number so large that there is no end to it other than for the invention of another economic system so it can be written off under a giant bankruptcy proceeding, is classic ostrich behaviour.
Here is the history of that debt as a proportion of GDP noting of course that during this timeline GDP has grown to over 40x its 1960 value.
100% of GDP in 2019 was 40 times bigger in dollars than 100% of GDP in 1960.
And another slightly different presentation of the same data that shows this absolute dollar increase more clearly, the debt adjusted for inflation divided by the number of housholds
Just for comparison the national entry-level average house price in the US for the last quarter of 2019 was $200,000 meaning a huge chunk of US households were up to their eyeballs in their own debt as well as copping an equivalent amount borrowed by Uncle Sam.
The pattern of when debt increased and fell is interesting too.
After both world wars debt was paid down, rapidly in the case of WWII on the back of a newly minted industrial base. Reagan and Bush spent a few dollars that Clinton tried to pay down only for Bush Jr and his successors to take on a couple more expensive wars.
Obama spent big and, not to be outdone, so has Trump.
Alright, so without getting all political about it, the curve is going up… exponentially.
To operate in this manner of spending more than it earns, the U.S. Treasury Department has to issue Treasury bills, notes, and bonds. These Treasury products finance the deficit by borrowing from the investors—both domestic and foreign. These Treasury securities also sell to corporations, financial institutions, and other governments around the world.
By issuing these types of securities, the federal government can acquire the cash that it needs to provide governmental services. The national debt is simply the net accumulation of the federal government’s annual budget deficits. It is the total amount of money that the U.S. federal government owes to its creditors.
So in simple terms, the government borrowed the money.
It is said that really this is printing money and that would be the case if in the future the government foreclosed. It reneged on its obligation to pay bond interests and the house of cards fell over. But for now, it is claimed to be a debt system and not a printing system where there is some notion of future returns and recovery of the principle.
The investors do not seem to mind.
They buy and trade government bonds making a clip in the process so they have no qualms about how big the debt is or the risk of default. They will be on their yachts when it all goes belly up.
And so the debt number that just gets bigger each day is owed to creditors.
Governments who are in control of the central bank could just print the money instead of borrowing it, but history tells everyone that this risks a crazy level of inflation that can cripple economies. Ask the Zimbabweans about that one.
Hyperinflation has two main causes
an increase in the money supply
When a government has a spending bill and decides to print money it increases the money on the economy. When there is more money around people have it to spend and goods and services can raise prices without losing custom generating regular inflation. A little of this is seen as a good thing because most people feel like they are growing financially.
Demand-pull inflation is when demand for goods and services outstrips supply so scarcity pushes prices higher. This can happen as a result of increased consumer spending due to a growing economy, a sudden rise in exports, or more government spending.
If inflation gets going through an increase in the money supply but the government continues to print money it generates more of cause one and prices can rise very rapidly. When consumers start to realise that continued inflation is likely they buy more now to avoid paying a higher price later. This increase in demand further aggravates the inflation through cause two.
A nasty spiral results.
Is national debt a bad thing?
Well, I am a ‘money in the bank’ kind of guy.
I struggle to have credit card debt without freaking out so much that I burry the bills in the cupboard.
Economists are not such wimps; it’s other people’s money after all. Only they don’t seem to agree on the issue of debt.
They do agree that governments that run fiscal deficits have to make up the difference by borrowing money. This they know eats up a fair chunk of capital investment in private markets. They also agree that debt securities issued by governments to service their debts affect interest rates, although this can, until recently be manipulated to some extent through monetary policy tools.
After this, it gets a bit ‘cake and eat it’
The Keynesians believe that it can be beneficial to run a current account deficit
in order to boost aggregate demand in the economy.
However, the neo-Keynesians tend to support government deficit spending only after the monetary policy has proven ineffective and nominal interest rates have hit zero.
On the other hand macroeconomists from the Chicago and Austrian school argue that
government deficits and debt hurt private investment, manipulate interest rates and the capital structure, suppress exports, and unfairly harm future generations either through higher taxes or inflation.
Some economists on the fringes are still ok with central banks printing fiat money, despite the historical evidence for inflation.
The fear of inflation appears to keep policymakers from monetizing debt entirely. Instead, overspending governments either have to continue to borrow, sell assets, raise taxes, renegotiate terms, or default to resolve debt issues.
As the federal debt number in the US reaches the outer reaches of our solar system there has to be a limit to what can be fiddled to soak it up with selling down and borrowing. The most likely end result is to default.
Oh, terribly sorry, but we can’t make those repayments.
So is all this debt good or bad?
Inject money into an economy and it will prosper so long as that money of made from something. Print it and it sends values into a spin.
Currently, the world is compromised in the middle, through the third option. Spend but pay for it with debt. Under the current rules, sooner or later that debt is either paid back or not.
I had a problem with this political slogan from the beginning.
The assumption, of course, is that America was at one time great. In the minds of its citizens perhaps, but, in reality, when America dominated the world it was a bully with extraordinary economic power thanks mainly to the industrial makeover after WW II.
The problem, even if you concede that industrial and economic might is indeed a great thing, is that in order to make America great again, the orange man has turned to an isolation approach based on an ‘us and them’ kindergarten psychology where the ‘them’ are bad and ‘we’ are good. It is innately racist.
Chasing the slogan has worked, at least for his support base. He spent government money, no matter that there was none to spend and a $26 trillion debt on the books, and for a time pumped a certain amount of confidence in the economy. Things were indeed moving towards his definition of great.
Only now a threat has arrived that he can’t control, a pandemic, where being economically great simply doesn’t work to protect anyone against its consequences — just ask Boris how he felt in the ICU.
It might be smart to reconsider the concept of being great under such circumstances. The global world of lockdown has given us any number of creative definitions from the humorous to the smart.
The US is in an election year and obviously Trump is moving to make sure he is reelected. I say obviously because we didn’t think he would make it to the office or survive five minutes, so we perhaps shouldn’t assume he would automatically want another four years of being the biggest cheese… only joking. Of course, he wants it.
Re-election in a pandemic would be a challenge for anyone. The US economy has tanked, unemployment is through the roof, and many people have no idea when or if there will be a return to normal.
In the meantime, under the encouragement of the president, people are taking their guns and demanding that state governors lift the lockdown measures. At over a million cases and counting that seems reckless at best.
Professor Robert Reich, a former US Secretary of Labour and Professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley has recently come up with what he believes is Donald Trump’s four-step plan for reelection
Step 1 is to remove income support so people have no choice but to return to work
Step 2 hide the facts
Step 3 pretend it’s about freedom
Step 4 shield business’ against lawsuits for spreading the infection
This, of course, is a Democrat talking about a Republican president but the points he makes in those four steps are troubling.
Removing income support at a time when people are worried about their employment status is cruel in the extreme.
We know that the Trump administration hides the facts as a matter of course and when facts appear that they don’t like, they play them as fake news.
The problem with COVID is that the facts deal with death.
When Trump first put his hand up to become president, pretty much everyone laughed. I for one failed to realise how far the denial of facts and the lambasting of the media as fake could take you all the way to the White House. No surprise then that this tactic of hiding the facts will apply in the case of the virus.
Pretending it’s about freedom so that gun-toting individuals can rock up at government offices to demand their rights and for that behaviour to be seen as ok is crazy. As Robert Reich points out, making this about freedom is absurd. Freedom is meaningless for people who have no choice but to accept a job that risks that health.
And the fourth step to get business back on track and the economy in the direction that will get me reelected, is to protect them from lawsuits that might occur if they remain open and their staff contract the virus
I don’t know if it’s possible to imagine how any of this is great.
There have been millions of words written about the craziness of this situation that the US finds itself in with leadership that really has no concern for the people or just a small proportion of those people who are there to support the ego of an individual.
I suspect that we’re actually witnessing the ongoing decline of a once-powerful nation. The British Empire has gone and the American one looks like it will follow suit. This will take time because you can’t just turn off the influence of 350 million people and the world’s largest economy but the passions and the motivations that got them into that position of greatness have been corrupted beyond recognition.
America will not be great again at least not on this path.
Now there is another disruption. The next chapter in a terrible saga of racism that has blighted the so-called greatness for the countries entire history. There is hope this time around, there always is when the righteousness in people is roused by tragedy.
If I tell you that the grass is greener over there you will laugh at me. That’s just the old wives having a go. The grass is just as green as it wants to be. You’ll rightly say that I’m just jealous.
However, if I keep saying it, a sliver of doubt will creep in.
Could this guy be right?
I did see his neighbour with a bag of fertilizer the other day. Maybe he does have a greener lawn. It certainly looks greener. Maybe it is.
This doubt can grow if my claim of extra verdancy is delivered with passion and commitment… and often.
Everyone knows the adage though.
It is easy to think that others have it better than us but this is rarely, if ever, the case. The grass is not greener at all. And anyway, who cares? It is irrelevant if my neighbour has splashed out on fertilizer. It is his lawn, not mine.
I need to look down to my own grass and not over the fence.
In other words, I might find out that the grass is indeed greener but there is nothing I can do about it, it’s not my grass.
Let’s take this notion a little further.
Here is a section from a lengthy paper on the necessary and complex dialogue on climate change and sustainable development…
By excluding any obviously, social or political matters, the scientific reductionism of climate change makes consensus possible, but the result is, in some sense, irrelevant. The things that can be known with scientific certainty are not necessarily the most important to know. So, for example, the science of climate change can agree about the physical sources of carbon emissions, but only by refusing to consider the far more important and deeply political question of why they are increasing and how (or if) they should be curtailed.
Cohen, S., Demeritt, D., Robinson, J., & Rothman, D. (1998). Climate change and sustainable development: towards dialogue. Global Environmental Change, 8(4), 341-371. Emphasis added by Alloporus
Alright, this is interesting.
It says that the evidence — and the level of inference in that evidence (what can reliably be said given the numbers) given the degree of reductionism (amount of inference) — should be enough to convince everyone that climate change is both real and the current warming event a result of human activities. The numbers are unequivocal.
We know where the emissions came from and we know what levels they are at in the atmosphere and we know what this does to the back radiation of energy from the sun.
The problem is that this is not what matters.
The real questions for climate changes are
why are the sources of greenhouse gas emissions increasing?
should we try to curtail the warming trend through greenhouse gas emission reduction and carbon sequestration?
is it even possible to curtail the worse of the climate changes given the scale at which humans can take action?
These are the psychological consequences of the emergence of a problem. It triggers strong emotional responses. The real questions are not about the truth of the matter but what we feel needs to be done if we accept the truth.
I might know intellectually that ‘the grass is greener over there’ adage can’t help me sort out my own grass, however, it does not stop me being jealous.
Here is another example…
Take a look at this image of some paddocks in central NSW, Australia
This is sheep country and has been pretty soon after the Europeans arrived in 1788. This land has seen generation after generation sheep and the graziers that manage them.
The area in the image is around 400 ha (1,000 acres)
In the image, you can see the water source in the northeast with its bare perimeter reminiscent of water holes in game parks and the rectangle in the centre of the image is a holding pen. This is grazing on native vegetation but there is little grass among the patchy and occasionally dense trees and shrubs. Stocking rates are low and much of the land would be classified as degraded.
The land is tired after such a long period of production on what were initially old and nutrient-poor soils. The carbon content of the soil has declined and the production of grass become more and more volatile from year to year, season to season, in a hot, drought-prone region.
Given this, what happens if there is a run of poor years?
What does the grazier do?
Well, first of all, he will let any staff go for there is no money to pay salaries so any employees move on. Any slack in the operation he will take up himself. His long hours will just get longer — a poll by Agriland showed that 72% of farmers say they work more than a 60-hour week.
He might sell some of his herd or even loan them to other graziers with more grass and cut down as much as possible on any inputs he has from deworming to fence maintenance. His priority will be to keep what animals he has fed and watered enough for them to survive.
What he won’t do is give up.
His farm means more to him than a business. It is his home, livelihood and sense of place all in one. There is more to his bare paddocks than a place to grow some meat for the city folk, there is the opportunity that when it rains again there is serious money to be made, maybe a house on the coast or a holiday in Europe. The things that those city folk have begun to take for granted.
The farmer actually has no time to consider the greenness of his neighbour’s grass.
He is flat out trying to keep his animals alive… on his own.
This is important to know
The grazier can do well to tap into some of his real questions. He doesn’t need to know about the greenness of his neighbour’s pastures or the cause of climate change, we actually want him to ask
what are the sources of my declining productivity?
should I try to curtail these sources or change production altogether?
is it even possible to curtail the sources given the resources available to me right now and my needs for the next few years?
It is in his interests to focus on his own grass.
It is in our interests too and we should help however we can. We need every grazier to be producing as much food as possible without reducing the chance of producing food in the future not just to feed ourselves but to feed everyone.
Short courses in science and statistics should be mandated for all politicians because of their importance to so much public policy. And because so few demonstrate any knowledge of even the basic process of science.
Ian Chubb, neuroscientist and former Chief Scientist of Australia
Do you know the basic process of science?
Maybe you have a distant memory of a school teacher saying something about cause and effect or experiment or maybe hypothesis. Perhaps you were told to mix a few chemicals in some test tubes and record the colour changes.
Well, that’s it in the formal sense — the testing of hypotheses through controlled experiments. All that stuff about the scientific method.
It began with the Scientific Revolution in Europe towards the end of the Renaissance period and continued through the late 18th century when developments in mathematics, physics, astronomy, biology, and chemistry transformed the views of society about nature.
This period is also known as the Enlightenment when a few radical thinkers decided they had had enough of religions telling them obvious lies about the world around them. The likes of Beccaria, Baruch, Spinoza, Diderot, Kant, Hume, Rousseau, and Adam Smith decided a better approach was needed, one based on fact, things known to be true.
Now let’s see what happened next.
The rise of democracy, the industrial revolution, huge increases in health and well-being for more and more people.
The average westerner now lives in more luxury and comfort than Louis XIV, the king who was miffed at all those philosophers bursting his bubble. Way more in fact.
The arts and social science types will not be happy that I am suggesting progress is down to the natural sciences, but you have to admit, it put a rocket under the process. The changes seen in societies across the globe in the last 200 years have been so much faster than at any other time in human history.
In short, science is important.
It makes good sense for leaders as well as thinkers to at least know how science works and something about the philosophy behind it. Especially the idea that the scientific method generates evidence, facts know to be true.
It is vital that decision-makers know what is known and how reliable that information is. We took the piss out of Donald Rumsfeld but actually, he was onto something, although he was lampooned for saying it.
The scientific method and the results from the researchers who apply it reliably generate the facts that give us the full suite of knowns.
Professor Chubb said something else. He also wanted the political muppets to know about statistics.
He is spot on.
Without the basics of probability — how likely something is to happen — combined with an understanding of the scientific method, the results of research and the advice of the experts are meaningless.
Probability seems quite difficult to understand for most people. Here are a few conundrums as examples…
If I toss a coin and get five heads in a row, what is the probability of the next coin toss delivering heads? Exactly 50%, just like it was for the previous five tosses.
The median is not the same as the mean even though they are both measures of central tendency unless the data is normally distributed.
An unlikely event is not impossible — ask Nassim Taleb about black swans.
These statistics and likelihoods and measures of distributions are not lies, they are vital to understanding risk and opportunity, the very essence of what policy for the collective benefit should be about. Minimising risk and maximising opportunities for as many citizens and visitors as possible.
Politicians are ignorant of this at our peril.
Go ahead and share this extraordinary missive, you know you want to.
Also let us know in the comments section if a short course on the scientific method would be of interest to you
Just before the lockdown, I made my annual pilgrimage to the hospital to see my cardiologist. It’s a long story to do with genes and familial lines and some inevitabilities of the way biology works.
The visit was a success from my end thanks to a fine doctor who is a sensible and pragmatic professional. His motto seems to be ‘if it ain’t broke don’t try to fix it’. This is somewhat unusual in our interventionist times and a bonus for me because the last thing I want is another procedure.
Anyway, we dealt with my heart issues fairly briskly and got onto stress.
This was a problem for me and the cardiologist agreed although he was quick to say that he was not qualified to advise on what I should do about it. My blood tests are good and my blood pressure in the middle of normal so from his perspective not much to be done.
My wife asked if retirement might be a solution.
“Oh no, that would not work,” he said, ‘you’re an environmental scientist right?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Well then, the stress will still be there even if you retire. This country is in a political mess.”
He was actually rather less polite than this but his point was a good one. There is a level of stress and malaise over many scientists right now in the age of spin, fake news and normative science.
Scientists, especially environmental ones, are purposely misunderstood, maligned and ignored.
I experience it every day.
When I try to speak the listeners switch off or glaze over. People seem to have no skills with logic and numbers and have no interest in gaining any. Anything more complex than 2 + 2 is near impossible to communicate.
The really important issues that involve an understanding of settled science, some skills with likelihoods, and the application of proper scepticism — these things are just not even in the conversation.
Well, I can and I will, but only from the day job.
A lifetime of buzzing around as a lonely fly avoiding the wafts of the disinterested and the annoyed is debilitating. I’m knackered.
But then there the issues that still get me excited and incited. My normative feelings rush in and I’m wanting to say something, even if it is to extoll the virtue (another normative word) of being objective.
I will be my own worst enemy and keep on thinking about all this until I get hit by a bus.
Meantime there was another thing.
It was a relief to hear that the expert thinks my heart with its grafts is doing fine. Keep doing what you’re doing and come back in a year was the message. I will take that from a fellow scientist.
It was a shock to hear how much trouble he thought the world was in and that was before we had a pandemic.
A short primer
Normative science — science based on preference or value.
This means that it is not true science at all but an opinion or bias towards a particular outcome held by the scientist on her own behalf or by the people who support her.
Food and diet are obviously normative. They are both chockablock full of values. What we eat is what we can afford and what we choose based on our preferences that are rarely free of value.
There are ways to quite quickly decide if the science presented is normative.
1 – Look out for ‘is’ and ‘ought’ and value-laden words
In the English language, the difference between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ is critical. The use of the word ‘is’ determines a fact whilst ‘ought’ refers to an opinion.
Science should be all about the world of ‘is’, the facts about the past, present, or future. So if the language that a scientist uses has too many ‘oughts’ then there is a good chance she is being normative.
The use of ‘should’ is a giveaway too.
Bad, better, bigger, catastrophe, destroy, disaster, good, slashed, tremendous, ugly and all similar value-laden words and phrases are red flags for normative language.
2 – How was the evidence generated
True scientific evidence comes from deduction. This is a process of setting forth an idea as a hypothesis and testing it with an experiment where treatments are assigned to observational units at random.
Some evidence comes from observation alone. As the plane flies low over the savannah the elephants browsing below are counted. This tells us how many elephants there are viewable from the aircraft — an observation.
It is only an estimate of how many elephants there might be all together and tells us nothing about what elephants do or if their numbers are decreasing or on the rise.
The quality of evidence to explain how things work is really what science is about. Observation alone is rarely enough.
3 – Who provided the evidence?
If you are paid $100,000 a week to play soccer for a premier league team you would not want to score goals for the opposition. You are paid to score goals for your team.
Scientists are prone to this employer bias as much as anyone. If your boss wants to see great yield response in trails of the companies new fertilizer it will be hard to present evidence to the contrary. He might say you had a poor design and get you to repeat the experiment or worse.
Ask yourself who generated the evidence as well as how they did it. Academics are less likely to be based than scientists working for commercial companies and those who work for government agencies might be somewhere in between.
Beware though, for no one is immune.
Feel free to browse some more ideas for healthy thinking