How opinions become facts

How opinions become facts

Our becoming emotionally wedded to our opinions mutates them into indisputable facts. That’s when they become dangerous. When our beliefs possess our feelings and we cement them as truth, we start to exclude, judge or dismiss the beliefs of others. Undue feelings of superiority take hold. And in that condition, it’s impossible for actual truths—even provable, scientific ones—to get in.

Partrick King

If Patrick King is right then opinions readily become ‘facts’ even without proof. When we are invested through a feeling our minds and hearts begin to narrow our world view and make it our immutable own. We start to believe our own thoughts, notorious for their flights of fancy, and consolidate them into our truths. Add to this any number of powerful forces in the modern world that play with our emotions, tapping into and sometimes mutating our core beliefs to fill us up with rigidity. We become closed and, as my own therapist tells me, judgemental and negative. Ouch.

If even half of this is true, we have a serious problem on our hands.

When opinions solidify into cement they corral us into like-minded groups creating the steel reinforcement for the concrete. The really important awareness and empathy suffer and limit our connections to other people. Ouch again.

Before the sky falls in, let’s back up a little.

Opinion is defined as “a view or judgement formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge”. We all have them because we use judgements to help us navigate our lives.

It helps not to have to think things through from first principles all the time for that would be tedious and inefficient. We need the thinking space saved for emergencies. And if there are no crises to resolve, then thinking can be used for creative outlets. Not having to think until we want to is powerful support for opinions.

Facts are defined as things that are known to be consistent with objective reality and can be proven to be true with evidence. In other words, they are objective.

Facts come from a logical process of proof that the proposition (or belief) is true or valid. This involves observation or the creation of information through an agreed process that goes beyond the individual and is repeatable. It should also be agreed that the logic process and the information reflects reality. This is all a bit technical and not touchy-feely at all, far more Mr Spock than Captain Kirk. Most people would rather be Kirk than Spock.

Given these definitions, we can see that opinion is easy to come by for all we have to do is attach to our core and run with what it tells us. Facts are much harder to grasp for we must understand the logic process that generates them in order to accept them as proven and following this logic is hard work.

As far as our minds are concerned, opinion is easy, facts are hard.

There is an evolutionary advantage to the easier, lower-risk path. So it should be no surprise that judgements that are easier to come by and yet are still useful will persist.

This makes the first premise, of mutation of emotion into facts, logical even likely, especially for the pleasant feelings; such as being above average for example.

If they continue to work for us then their persistence makes sense too. The reinforcement of the good vibes that this brings will make the next premise likely too… “we start to exclude, judge or dismiss the beliefs of others.” This is the genesis of dogma. Fine when it is mutually beneficial (conservation of elephants is fine aspiration) and not so good when it is not (my religion is better than yours, in fact, yours sucks). This is bad enough for it creates any number of opportunities for conflict as people join their tribes and disagree with the opinions of other tribes.

The final premise is the one that really matters. Excluding others and feeling superior make it… impossible for actual truths—even provable, scientific ones—to get in. In other words, our opinions become very hard to change even when the evidence is strong that they are wrong or nonsensical.

As a scientist this is challenging. It is already difficult to explain scientific facts to the non-scientist who is not familiar with the logic revolutions of the renaissance or the technical details of your subject. They believe your white lab coat more than your statistical explanation. If we are also up against an evolutionary pressure — the easiest path will lead the genes along it — then we are in serious strife.

Donald, on the other hand, is laughing.

Where do you come from?

Where do you come from?

I could answer this by saying Croydon in south London where I was born. Only my parents moved from there before I had any memory of the place. They lived for a time in Herne Bay on the Essex coast where my sister was born but unlikely she would remember that place either because we were soon on our way back to south London, Hern Hill this time. Then from there to Hartlepool in the frozen north where a different language must be learned in a hurry, and then back to London, this time to Palmers Green in the posh northern suburbs.

So you could say I come from London… ish. Not a true cockney of course and sufficiently messed with accent wise to give the game away.

When people ask, that is what I say, I come from North London, mostly as I can remember that place.

When I was in my mid-twenties I got on a plane and moved to Zimbabwe.

Clearly not satisfied with the vagrancy of my youth, I opted for a big getaway that ended up lasting nearly a decade in Africa and is still going in the Antipodes. Almost before the plane touched down among the blossoming jacaranda trees of a vibrant Harare in its 1980’s livery that still worked for most of the people, I felt something homely. A sense of place.

At the time I put it down to youthful enthusiasm and excitement for the adventure. When it kept coming I noted it. I did feel comfort here. It was more than the friendly people and the stunning nature that was a European ecologists fantasy. It was a feeling in your gut that you were close to the truth. Near to something very important.

I travelled to the bush as often as I could and in the Brachystegia woodlands or among the leadwood and apple ring acacias on the banks of the Zambezi River or the majestic granite dwalas of the Matopos, the feeling kept coming. A sense of calm and peace that became a sense of belonging.

All the while I was reminded of the reality of my temporary status. A year-long residence permit with a renewal process that took six months did not even cover the postdoctoral research contract. There was very little pay and the tension of a struggling economy still limping after a decade of sanctions was starting to hurt folk. Most of the cars were older than I was and there was always one failed rainy season short of a food shortage. Yet even though I was alive to the reality of being a temporary guest, this feeling of place grew stronger.

After a couple of years of this delight, I moved again. This time to a more stable situation in Botswana, the next country along. This time the two-year contract was a little easier to renew and the salary was generous enough for a very comfortable life.

On one of the first explorations of the drier yet still magnificent acacia shrub of the granite sands, mopane woodlands in the north and desert grasslands of the Kalahari, I went to the easternmost arm of the Okavango Delta past Mababe village into a place of lush grasslands and mature acacia trees known as the Mababe Depression. This is a place where the water from the delta sometimes goes when the flood is strongest. It is a wilderness of the finest style, impala and sable and even roan mixing it with giraffe and elephant drawn to the water and the sweet grasses, a place to know where you come from.

As I got out of the truck and stood on the sandy clay in awe and gratitude that feeling came to me like never before. A powerful vibrancy in every cell just telling me that this is the place. This is where you are from. And for a moment I wasn’t in my body, I was in the grass and the trees and the impala grazing quietly in front of me.

It all sounds a little fanciful as I recount it now, but it was very real at the time. I knew there was something very special about the earth in that little far away corner of Africa. Only twice more in my life have I felt so connected to the greater universe and one of those occasions was after bypass surgery.

Mababe was truly special.

Fast forward a few decades and I come across a report in the Gaudian on new research from Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Sydney that used analyses of mitochondrial DNA to find where we all came from.

The claim is that “The swathe of land south of the Zambezi River became a thriving home to Homo sapiens 200,000 years ago, the researchers suggest, and sustained an isolated, founder population of modern humans for at least 70,000 years.”

Here is the map I borrowed from the article and added the location of the Mababe Depression. Surprise, surprise it is right there where the founders lived.

There is conjecture as to the veracity of these DNA results and the interpretation but this time I’ll take it.

You see my cells knew.

They vibrated to the energy of ancestors that started it all. That founder population that stood there and contemplated how to catch the impala for supper.

Why integrity and scepticism are inseparable allies

Why integrity and scepticism are inseparable allies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In short, I am stressed out.

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

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

I am starting to feel better.

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

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

Therapy is still a little shameful.

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

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

I became fixated with integrity.

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

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

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

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

Integrity and scepticism.

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

Scepticism is a huge threat to integrity.

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

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

It appears I am trained to wound myself.

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

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

So far this realisation of self-harm is raw.

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

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

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

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

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

When does speed and certainty overide accuracy?

When does speed and certainty overide accuracy?

“…ours is a brain that is programmed for a combination of speed and certainty, not accuracy. Acting decisively in the face of a speeding truck can save your life, while trying to determine truth can leave you a splatter on the road.

Patrick King, The Art of Clear Thinking

Do you feel the truth in this? We are so easily a splatter on the road if we let our thinking brains slow us down.

So we don’t. We prefer speed for our own safety.

The instant we realise, getting out of the way of the pouncing lion is imperative. Instinct triggers the impulse to leap (speed) as a proven option for giving us a chance to escape (certainty). Given enough time to think about the lion, our brains would come up with any number of smart options to manage predator exposure in the first place, such as deciding who should be the lookout with sharp eyes willing to stay awake (accuracy).

Accuracy takes way too much time and effort so in the human brain opts for speed and certainty.

Daniel Kahneman talks about this as thinking fast and slow.

Accuracy that requires us to weigh up options, think through options and make evidence-based decisions just takes too long and too much effort on our part for the majority of everyday decisions. If we did it all the time we would grind to a halt from inertia. So the fast brain takes over. This gives us quick options and makes us intellectually as well as physically nimble.

In human evolution, this was essential and perhaps one of the things that made us so successful. We are fast thinkers. Our speed and certainty of thought give us a competitive advantage over most creatures, other tribes, and even human rivals in our own team.

Once we escaped the lion and were relatively safe around the campfire, so then we were able to ponder, remember and weigh up our experiences and, through language, share our ideas with others. This time to ponder set us up for big innovations and future successes that made evolutionary sense of having both thinking mechanisms.

It also gave us connections with each other. Slow thinking helps deepen the connections that allow us to build trust and organise the lookout roster.

All good so far.

Patrick King goes on to say…

In the absence of threats to your life, truth should always be the end goal, and opinions should be formed only after making an honest effort to pursue it.

Patrick King

This is a laudable suggestion. We would all do well to heed it for even if we are just aware that we have two modes of thinking that is a great start. And even if the longer one takes effort, the accuracy if offers should be attractive enough for us to use it more often. No matter how fast you think there are times when you will appreciate the heads up from the lookout.

So what happened to all that debate in the pub? Wither the discourse and thought about issues of the day and the future? Replaced it seems by cute cat pictures and a swipe right.

In our modern jungles, the benefits of the slower, more considered mode of thinking seem forgotten. Immediacy has again taken over from thought.

Ironically, there are a thousand discussions on this issue of how we became thoughtless and the conclusion appears to be that speed and certainty override accuracy because most matters no longer require serious thought. In the west at least, immediate needs are easily met with fast decisions — pizza or Thai? — the everydayness of everything. It is easy to get by without a nightwatchman.

When there are more serious matters, such as who should get my vote, the choices are lamentable with little payoff from seeking accuracy.

If we combine lack of need with a limited payoff then the call to ‘honest effort’ will ring hollow. Why put in the effort for no reward?

Enough.

If you have read any posts on this blog or anything by dozens of more erudite thinkers then you know this is not even a question. There are 7.7 billion reasons to make the effort and you are one of them.

Everyone has a duty to buck up their ideas, turn their thinking brains on every day, build strong connections, and find some solutions to the multitude of challenges presented by so many souls.

Help a brother by thinking about accuracy.

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.

Discernment

Discernment

My mum, who is chin wagging 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 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 the everyday or risk 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.

Fear and danger

Fear and danger

“Because “frightening” and “dangerous” are two different things. Something frightening poses a perceived risk. Something dangerous poses a real risk. Paying too much attention to what is frightening rather than what is dangerous—that is, paying too much attention to fear—creates a tragic drainage of energy in the wrong directions.”

Hans Rosling “Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About The World – And Why Things Are Better Than You Think

As I get older I have become frightened of travelling.

This feels like a peculiar admission for a fortunate person who has lived on three continents and in half a dozen countries, visited over 20 more and walked through remote deserts, swamps and rainforests on any number of field trips to compile ecological research.

It is real though this fright.

I don’t like leaving home that much anymore. And it’s the prospect of it that seems to make me nervous. Once I’m on the road, train or plane I’m fine. My ‘get the job done’ gene kicks in and that’s what happens, the job gets done and almost always I enjoy the process.

The fear is irrational.

I have been there, done that way too many times for it to be a problem for my logical brain. I just have to think for even a moment and I can remember how enjoyable travel is and, indeed, what a privilege it is to see, smell and sense the world’s differences.

Only these days I am frightened before I leave home. I stress. My decision making goes awry and crankiness enters. It is annoying to me so it must be painful for my family. And there is a real ‘drainage of energy in the wrong direction’ as Hans Rosling insightfully put it. I’m sweating over nothing and yet it saps the juices like a thirsty aphid.

Now I’m trying to understand why this quote about danger and fright got me onto my middle-aged travel phobia. I think it is another feeling that is growing up from the deepest recesses of my gut; poking through the logic and evidence that I send down to suppress it. Something that is trying hard to get some air and to make some noise. And I think it is dangerous.

My problem is that I am frightened of what I know.

I will try to explain.

I know that…

Thomas Malthus was right.

Ultimately critical resources that humans need are finite and even as we get ever more numerous and effective at keeping entropy at bay there will come a point when we fail by falling down the wrong side of a peak in one or other critical commodity or ecosystem service before we invent an alternative.

Only I also know that our ingenuity, adaptability and downright bloody-mindedness finds solutions to resource constraints. History is a long list of confirmation that this is inevitable. When we know there is a shortage some enterprising individual will invent an alternative often before the shortage kicks in because there is money to be made and kudos granted.

So my fear is not the one Malthus presumably had, fear of shortage, however rational this is on a finite planet shared by 7.5 billion ravenous human souls. My fear is the bit where Malthus says that humans convert resources into more humans or as he put it “mankind has the propensity to utilize abundance for population growth”

This means that technological advances to save and innovation to substitute resources just results in more people. Potentially a lot more until we get through the squeeze of 10 or 11 billion and start falling back towards 5 or 6 billion by the end of the century – Hans Rosling explains this eloquently.

This demographic transition (a slowing of birth rate as infant mortality declines and overall life expectancy rises from increased wealth) rescues us from the exponential numbers that Malthus saw coming but 11 billion still requires unfathomable resourcing for at least three or four generations.

I know that…

Humans do not channel abundance into prudence, we channel it into more abundance. We have to make more; it is a dictate of our biology.

The demographic transition may slow our reproductive more making but we cannot turn off these stubbornly successful genes and so we channel our more making into acquisitions. We gather stuff, copious amounts of it. Frightening is a useful word to describe the contents of the average western teenager’s bedroom, especially when we realise that said teenagers could not possibly have earned the funds to acquire all the gizmos and pink accoutrements. Their parents and relatives stumped up the money.

I also know we cannot blame the kids. They are facilitated into their consumption like the generations that preceded them. It has been a long time now since the days of forced labour for at least half the global populous and all the generations are complicit in the progression to modern consumption.

So the demographic squeeze is not just of 11 billion souls requiring sustenance, it is 11 billion individuals wanting to improve their lot in life.

Our unique success as a species is that this drive works. It produces gains in wealth that increasingly manifest in material things. The transition is not just about the numbers, it is what the people who make up the numbers want and will have. It is inescapable and dangerous.

I know that…

Food production systems and supply chains are far more fragile than we realise despite the extraordinary power of the marketplace.

Anyone who follows Alloporus posts here, on Alloporus Environmental or on LinkedIn has read epistles to every tribe on this issue. There is no need to extend the pain now other than to recognise fragility in production systems as truly dangerous.

Food insecurity might not be felt every day amongst the western wealthy as it is by the seven out of ten humans living on less than $10 per day but it is as real and present as any other danger worthy of the description.

I know that…

Nobody knows anything of these true dangers.

Many people are frightened of course. They waste energy on any number of highly unlikely scenarios from being hit by a bus to the imminent extinction of the koala but mostly on drama, as in ‘an exciting, emotional, or unexpected event or circumstance’; most often on those that tap the emotions. She was such a bitch.

And I know that this is the facet of human nature most dangerous to our existence.

Our ability not to see what is in front of our noses or to understand how important the issues are is legendary, indeed it is the muse of legends from the Greeks onwards. This opacity is not about to change. A wave of enlightenment is but a dream.

All that can be done is to plug away, perhaps lift a veil for a handful of people at a time, one even.

And finally.

I know that…

Rummaging for Elpis in Pandora’s box is risky but worth it.