Rational meaning

Rational meaning

Richard Flanagan is just one of many thinkers whose work explores rational meaning. Flanagan worries for our collective future. Alloporus has pointed out this out before in a little gem from Flanagan on Australia and now there is another piece on the erosion of rational meaning as it is swamped by a rising tide of vitriol.

This is the world we live in.

Whatever you say in public, in a post, an email, quietly to your dog as you let him off the leash in the park, it’s all fair game for comment and critique.

It is as though opinion (check the definition below) is no longer allowed even though it is just mine, can be completely off the wall with no truth to it whatsoever or is grounded in experience and knowledge. It matters not. Opinion is open to ridicule as soon as you express it.

The thing is its an opinion people. Get over it.

Opinion “a view or judgement formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge”

Now I am not proposing that opinions go unchallenged. Not at all. Failure in challenges to the opinions of the likes of Genghis Khan, Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini resulted in some of the most trying periods in human history. The problem is how we go about it.

We know that modern media gives everyone visibility but also anonymity that allows folk to unleash their inner Ghengis on a whim. What Richard Flanagan is worried about is how much this is leaking into places it shouldn’t. It’s attacking the floorboards of our intellectual thought and weakening our capacity for rational meaning.

Just the other day in an email update to colleagues I made a comment about the deepening drought in NSW. The exact phrase was…

And it will rain again. It always does.

Perhaps this is insensitive. Perhaps it is the truth. It was not intended to be anything more than a statement of fact that was hopeful. The rain will return and the challenging conditions for the farmers and rural people of eastern Australia will ease.

This was not how people saw it. I was a stupid city slicker with no idea of how tough it is to feed the sheep from the back of a truck on your weekends and still fear for the survival of the sheep and your business.

Does this mean I must think not twice, but many times before I write anything? Should the words be censored for every ounce of judgement even when the facts are irrefutable? ‘It will rain again, it always does’ is not even an opinion. It is rational and it has meaning.

Instead, I could have gone full bore toward the stark truth that some farms will fail in the harshness that is the Australian weather as Ross Gittins did in a Sydney Morning Herald editorial saying that our concern about the drought isn’t fair dinkum.

I hope that I will be this brave but I know from each small experience that what is being said about what writers write will affect what they write next. It has too. For it is human nature to be affected by the opinion of others. And online there are no referees so chances are that the writer will be personally attacked.

So here is the thought on rational meaning…

What about for every post or comment you leave that is negative towards another’s opinion, how about you leave another comment somewhere else that supports a writer.

Just say “thanks for bringing that thought to my attention” even if it’s an opinion you don’t share.

Maybe if we even out the vitriol a bit we might create some space and time for intellectual thought and in turn, create some ideas that are good for everyone.

Cognitive bias

Cognitive bias

“The cognitive bias psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman have shown that people intuitively estimate relative frequency using a shortcut called the availability heuristic: the easier it is to recall examples of an event, the more probable people think it is. People, for example, overestimate the likelihoods of the kinds of accidents that make headlines, such as plane crashes, shark attacks, and terrorist bombings, and they underestimate those that pile up unremarked, like electrocutions, falls, and drownings.”

Steven Pinker “The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence In History And Its Causes

There are any number if good news snippets in Steven Pinker’s book. He eloquently describes the continuous and ongoing improvement in the quality of human life through history.

Modern life is much, much better than you think.

No one would choose life at any time in history over modernity if it were judged by likely exposure to violent death or injury.

In short, we don’t know how lucky we are.

The availability heuristic is one of the reasons why we are not convinced that it is way safer to be alive and stay alive today than it was at any other time in our past. It seems that the human mind is very good at recalling what happens to us most recently or what we hear about most often. Not so much when it comes to distant memory or rare occurrences. And this makes good evolutionary sense.

The ability to remember recent dangers would be a handy advantage should those dangers still be around and hiding behind a bush, lions for example.

It also helps to remember where to find water or just how much novelty you can go for in the food you eat without risk of Delhi belly. Recalling the colour, size and taste of the berry that made you vomit is handy indeed.

When the availability heuristic evolved people lived in the immediate. They needed to identify and remember novelty to survive and prosper. Ease of recall for important things that their senses experienced really helped without the means to write anything down or to ‘hey Google’.

Back in the day when our senses sampled the world that was at our fingertips and ended at the horizon, we were the filter of novelty. Each human sampled events that were in front of them and individuals who were good at recognising and remembering novelty had an advantage in avoiding risk and recalling the good stuff.

This makes ‘headlines’ the keyword in the quote from Pinker. We are no longer the filter of novelty. Our handheld devices are. They present us with the majority of novelty and, surprise, surprise, they bombard us with things we remember… because the people sending the messages want to be noticed.

Falls and drowning do not make headlines because they are familiar enough to be outside the heuristic. It’s not called clickbait for nothing.

Interestingly though, the heuristic and cognitive bias might be changing.

Instead of remembering the novelty all that a click baiter needs is to draw our attention briefly. Just long enough to click. So we are bombarded with cute, funny or weird that taps the heuristic but with no advantage. Arguably the novelty avalanche is meaningless drivel with all real advantage going to the providers, not the consumers. And so it is.

Presumably though as the number of cute cat events increase in proportion toward one, the snippet of real news might become easier to recall for its novelty value alone.

That would be an irony, wouldn’t it?



It would seem that humans beings are innately fair-minded.

They are drawn more to transactions that are fair, if not necessarily equal, over those that might appear economically rational. Social economics research says that if you have $100 and are prepared to share it with me if I’m offered anything less than about $40, I’d rather go without.

This subconscious ‘fairness test’ translates across any number of social transactions.

At the 19th hole after a friendly fourball, it is better to risk the ire of the breathalyzer than for any one member of the group to shirk the fairness of getting in his shout. So when, in order to keep to my self-imposed ‘maximum of 2 beers a day’ rule, I get my round in first or second, then say no thanks on the third and fourth round.

My golfing buddies are incredulous.

“No worries”, I say, “I’m good”.

They insist and with ever-increasing voracity, for I have unwittingly deprived them of fairness. The lime and soda duly arrives as a less than complete compromise.

We have this fairness requirement even if our social systems are steadily imposing the opposite. Wealth, income and opportunity disparities have created ‘have’s’ and ‘have nots’ a plenty. And we all know it to be true, so much so that it can even get some odd folk elected to public office.

No doubt this innate ‘fairness test’ is a driver for any number of historical resets where the ‘have’s’ took too much, beyond what was considered fair, and the masses rose up to change things. There is also no doubt that fairness is hard-wired into every generation. It might even leak across into entitlement.

So the questions to think about are these.

When will the next reset happen?

My guess is that the current return to a political polarisation of sorts is the pre-dinner drinks. It is not the main meal at all. That will come when the old school approach typified by the stupid white men who actually think that if you offer $1 from your $100 it is better than nothing and so you will be grateful for the gesture, finally withers away.

So my guess is not in this but perhaps the next generation. Sometime towards the middle of the century when the reality has bitten a little harder and there has been time for some alternative politics to be invented by the young.

And how will it reset?

A social revolution of course. It is the way… usually.

Numbers game

Numbers game

Apparently psychopaths are more common that you might realise.

Many exist among us going about their business without empathy and devoid of goodwill towards others. Typically they hide in plain sight, usually in the corporate world where their talents are appreciated.

Psychopath : A person with a personality disorder indicated by a pattern of lying, cunning, manipulating, glibness, exploiting, heedlessness, arrogance, delusions of grandeur, sexual promiscuity, low self-control, disregard for morality, lack of acceptance of responsibility, callousness, and lack of empathy and remorse. Such an individual may be especially prone to violent and criminal offenses

Academics Scott Lillenfeld and Ashley Watts writing on how psychopathic traits are linked to success sum it up. “Despite the popular perception, most psychopaths aren’t coldblooded or psychotic killers. Many of them live successfully among the rest of us, using their personality traits to get what they want in life, often at the expense of others”.

They also suggest that “people with pronounced psychopathic traits may be found disproportionately in certain professional niches, such as politics, business, law enforcement, firefighting, special operations military services and high-risk sports. Most of those with psychopathic traits probably aren’t classic “psychopaths,” but nonetheless exhibit many features of the condition”.

The numbers of psychopaths are sobering.

Around 0.6% of the general population demonstrate more than half of the core traits that define psychopathy meaning there are around 145,000 in Australia alone. That’s at least one in every carriage of every morning commuter train.

Not all of these individuals will kill or eat people of course but it should make you think given you have probably bumped into one in the last 48 hours of normal life.

If the ratio holds across cultures, globally there are 45 million psychopaths alive right now.

So even if one in 10,000 of them are capable of murder then police forces will have over 4,500 homicides from psychotic behaviour to solve in the coming years.

It is an inevitable consequence of the numbers.

This numbers game applies to all extreme behaviours that are, by definition, outside the norm. As the global population grows two things happen at the extremes.

First, for a given extreme behaviour that has a very low prevalence in the population, more instances of that behaviour will happen by chance, not because the likelihood changes but because there are more absolute numbers of individuals with that behaviour.

Second, greater numbers increases the occurrence of extremely rare behaviours. Those that have a very low likelihood, say 0.006% or one in 16,667, having a million people as opposed to a thousand increases the frequency with such very extreme events are manifest.

All this needs is a reasonable assumption that behaviours show some sort of tailed distribution around a norm.

It is not necessary for the likelihood to change for occurrences of rare events to increase.

All you need is a larger population.

And we know that is exactly what we are getting.



“The US surveys consistently show that ‘reading proficiency’ as exemplified, for instance, by the ability to ‘compare viewpoints in two editorials’ is possessed by only 13 per cent of the US adult population.”

From ‘The Challenge of Things: Thinking Through Troubled Times‘ by A. C. Grayling

This is a remarkable quote.

If the numbers are true, then roughly 8 out of 10 average Americans can’t discern viewpoints from what they read. This is both an indictment on levels of literacy and on the consequences of them being so low.

It could be that most people are not aware that they do not know what the written words mean. They readily form opinions from what they hear and see on conventional media and have those views reinforced by their social media feeds. When all that they read comes in the form of a tweet then there is hardly any discerning to be done. It’s too easy to find the reinforcement of your worldview.

It could be even simpler than this. Maybe people do not make up their minds. Instead, they just listen and take everything they hear as gospel.

So here is one consequence of this staggering reality.

There is very little point in editorials.

Post revisited – washing machines

Post revisited – washing machines

What does 2 billion look like?


A two followed by many zeros. It’s big.

This number of standard sized washing machines would fill over 8 million 40 ft shipping containers, roughly equivalent to the total capacity of the global fleet of container ships.

And before the next generation of youngsters get over their binge drinking obsession, there will be 2 billion dishwashers on earth saving teenagers from Cincinnati to Conakry the indignity of doing the washing up.

Quite the improvement considering that running water only entered the majority of homes after the industrial revolution.

Here is what Alloporus said about washing machines in June 2011…

Washing machines

The number of people with the economic ability to purchase a dishwasher will double to more than 2 billion in the next 30-40 years.

Far more will rise above what Swedish statistician Professor Hans Rosling calls the ‘washing line’; an income of US$40 per day, the threshold necessary to own and run a washing machine.

On the one hand this is a worry.

Energy is needed to manufacture and power all these devices as is a water supply to allow them to function. Policy efforts on climate change notwithstanding, the cheapest power still comes from fossil fuels. It is why China is building coal-fired power stations even as they diversify into alternative fuels because they will need the energy to run all the new white goods.

On the other hand, sales of consumer goods will drive economic growth.

This is good news for those who require GDP growth, the enshrined dogma of political success. Nothing will prevent families from buying a washing machine if they can afford it, nor indeed, airplane tickets, dishwashers and cars as their wealth allows.

Couple this inevitable growth in buying power with ever more people and the growth paradigm has never looked better.

Hans Rosling has a very clever way of explaining the population and economic growth combination using Ikea boxes

It is the economic transition that is integral to the population one.

Without economic growth it is harder to see population growth slowing and eventually contracting. Children must consistently outlive their parents for this to happen and that means needs must be met and standards of living must rise.

It seems that we have not fully embraced this reality.

No amount of environmental concern, moral imperative to preserve resources or even fear of environmental collapse is likely to trump the imperative to improve things for our families.

For this is an expression of self-preservation that is hard wired?

There is a reason that Rosling’s Ikea box video has appeared several times on this blog.

It is the best and most accessible explanation of what will happen to the human population of this planet under business as usual. It is also the most likely outcome baring collapse.

But that number, 2,000,000,000 remains hard to fathom.

When the number refers to washing machines an armada like no other is needed to move them to a point of sale. There is such a global fleet and it is ploughing the waves right now heavily laden.

Innocence of youth

Innocence of youth

YouTube has thousands of videos of kids being cute. Not quite as many as there are of cute cats but a lot.

Many of the kids videos are so endearing because the little darlings are cooperating, making reasoned arguments, listening to each other and showing compassion. They are being their unsullied selves even with chocolate ice cream all over their face.

This purity not only generates clicks, it shows us truths. Gentle yet powerful reminders of the way things should be done if we want a safer, more humane world.

Elizabeth Broers, a head teacher at a primary school in the UK, knows this better than most and wrote about how her 11 year olds could give wise counsel to politicians. The most provocative being ‘be honest’.

Youngsters can smell a fraud from 50 yards and then call it out, often with some cruelty — yes, they have that too. And this is clearly the trait most lacking in our pollies.

And this is clearly the trait most lacking in our pollies.

It is trite to suggest that we elect a few adolescents to parliament because they would drown in a tsunami of cynical narcissism that would knock them flat as soon as they walk through the door. No, we need to let them spend their youth learning how to mask the smell of the dishonest otherwise they will have a difficult life. We can’t send them to the parliamentary penitentiary, that would be too cruel.

So what about if we get our politicians to grow down.

Send them to spend a few working days a year in a primary school. Not for the photo op but for the experience, in the playground at little lunch, in the classroom, and even in the 4×4 on the way home.

Let them see what a kid sees for a few days a year, as though they were a kid.

If it made them even a smidgen more empathic it would be a start.