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It’s probably unfashionable to call it “Chinese Whispers” these days. At the very least, it’s politically incorrect, and as is so often the case in these situations, it turns out that the etymology of the game does include a racist streak. Namely; it was called this because westerners figured that spoken Chinese was unintelligible. So, a game where a message whispered from one ear to the next is eventually rendered nonsensical, was named for the Chinese “language” (which just goes to show how little was understood – were they listening to Cantonese, or Mandarin perhaps?)

So let’s call it “Telephone”, as it is called in the United States, according to Wiki, anyhow.

Really, that’s all by the by. What I’m here to talk about is the big picture.

There is a tendency these days to regard any item of news, or opinion from a talking head, as sitting on a level playing field with every other bit of news or opinion. A sense that one idea is as good as the next. It this world, the notion of “truth” ceases to have meaning, as if being “true” is a value judgment where none should be made. Just as the post-modern art era challenged the idea of “beauty” as a worthwhile goal in art, we now seem to live in the world of “post-truth”.

At some point, collectively we lost the ability to be able to distinguish an idea with merit grounded in observable facts, from an idea based upon another person’s opinion and ideas. This is a pretty big loss to society. If you can’t decide between things that are objectively true, and things that are mere conjecture, then you may find yourself completely lost in the world. Without this ability, airplanes would never have flown, and we’d still be cooking with a camp fire, and certainly would not have the ability to reheat our food in the microwave.

Somehow, we are fearful of value judgment. Some things, nonetheless, are more valuable than others. The effects of gravity are observable, for instance, and if someone were to say, “I have a different idea”, we might listen, but we would dismiss it as untrue at best, crazy more likely. Gravity is a fact. The warping of space-time causes bodies of mass to be “attracted” to one another in proportion to their mass (roughly – it’s easy to get your Newtonian and Einsteinian physics muddled up here, and that’s beside the point anyway).

So it is that even in the murky world of politics and international affairs, there is a version of events that is true, and myriad others that simply are not. The considerable difficulty lies in determining to which you have been subjected.

In to this quagmire steps the conspiracy theory. By definition, a conspiracy is a situation where a number of actors (people, groups, “governments”) get together and decide on a collective course of action, usually to achieve a mutually beneficial goal (perhaps at the cost of external parties), and normally protected by secrecy as to their intentions and as to the existance of the conspiracy itself.

In this sense, nearly all international government actions are conspiracies. They work to further their ends, and they keep the intentions and plans secret.

So what can this tell us? Well, if you’ve ever heard of espionage, spies, and the “intelligence community”, you’ll know that the conspiracies of one government are notoriously leaky and transparent to others. Sometimes through concerted effort, sometimes by mistake, in the end, secrets are hard to keep, even by those whose entire career is bent on keeping them.

Part of the problem is that we’re only human, we’re incorrigible gossips, and we just blab. We also suffer from various psychological tendencies, greed, pride, etc. Ultimately, someone lets the cat out of the bag. The more people who are in on the secret, the more probable the leak. As they say in the classics, The Truth Will Out!

As such, grand actions by a nation state, plans involved large numbers of people, plans shrouded in mystery and secrecy, rarely stay secret for long. It’s just highly difficult to keep the secret.

Also, the more people involved, the greater the work of co-ordination, which by itself requires more people who know of the secrets. It’s nearly an exponential growth of numbers of likely blabbers. The bigger the conspiracy, the larger the likelihood of a leak, therefore the less likely the secret will be contained. Multiply that by the time the conspiracy has been in place, and you get an even slimmer likelihood of success.

In short, big conspiracies are very unlikely indeed.

Let’s return to the co-ordination problem. Remember the game, Chinese Whispers Telephone? Well, the more people in the circle, the worse the end result. With enough people, it becomes complete gibberish by the end. That’s how the world of conspiracy works too! Sure, computers mean perfect messages can be copied instantaneously, but there are still people either side of the machinery. There’s still heaps of room for human error. Couple that with the secrecy problem and you have a near perfect recipe for failure.

So, the simplest answer to your next conspiracy theory, be it chemtrails, big-pharma/GMOs/Aliens, climate change (I mean look what happened to the emails of a bunch of giggling scientists – even their snarky emails couldn’t be kept secret!), Syrian war… whatever, it is this:

The bigger the conspiracy, the more unlikely it is.

More than that, beyond a threshold (lets say, collusion by a couple of countries, or multi-national companies), it becomes basically impossible. If you add natural commercial market competition to the mix (as there is in say the reporting of the news) then the threshold reduces. Next time someone tells you that the media is feeding you a lie, ask them to think of how that might work. The sensible end to that thought is, “It doesn’t.”

PS. This is not exactly the same argument as Okham’s Razor. Indeed you might think the Razor suggests that a conspiracy is the simplest solution given that perhaps it involves the neatest arrangement with least variables. But no, from the Razor, the most likely solution will never be a conspiracy, because it is quickly seen that to have a conspiracy is always to posit one more variable (namely the conspiracy itself) than is required to explain the phenomenon. Thus conspiracies nearly always fail the test.

 

 

Seen on Facebook: “Part of the reason we have diseases is because of the shit they put in the vaccinations.”

Then they argued against vaccinations. The usual followed: That vaccines cause autism (a scientifically discredited idea) and that ‘other chemicals’ in the vaccines cause disease by ‘attacking our organs’ (actually, such chemicals are in significantly lower concentrations in vaccines than in most foods and drinks). They then ‘agreed to disagree’, demonstrating no flexibility on the issue. It is terribly frustrating given the important benefits of a major public health measure.

What is going on here? Why do people believe the wrong story in the face of the overwhelming scientific evidence?

The answer is not that they are stupid. It is likely a result of pernicious cognitive biases that we all share. We’re all pretty hopeless at assessing small risks and our brain is essentially useless when it comes to statistics. It’s not natural to think statistically and even statisticians don’t do it automatically. Most importantly here, we tend to construct arguments in our minds based on the easiest memories we can access. This is called “availability bias”, bolstered by its cousin, the salience of vivid events creating an overestimation of the probabilities.

We fixate on rare dramatic events, and they become etched into our memories with all the emotional adornments of terror and compassion. They are easy to recall, and we then construct stories and causation from them. A child gets very sick after a vaccination, we are horrified, we link that to a well publicised (but wrong) link between autism and vaccinations and hey presto! Vaccines are to blame. It seems to make sense and gives us warm feelings that we have understood the world and can proceed with that knowledge.

None of that process requires you to think hard. You do it almost automatically. In contrast, to actually examine the link requires deliberate thought. Any medical treatment carries risk, but it is usually exceptionally small, and mostly well worth discounting. We attach too much value to very slim chances. For instance, a small risk such as a 1 in 10,000 chance of an adverse outcome is, perversely, perceived as hugely worse than no chance at all, and so we tend to avoid the risk by avoiding the risky activity.

On the flipside, we are happy to accept the extremely high probability of losing money in a lottery because we cannot really grasp the vanishingly small chance of winning – but we have no trouble at all imagining the benefits! Don’t trust your gut on small probabilities.

Autism is not caused by vaccinations, but that fact is far less famous than the original headliner. So powerful is the availability bias, that it affects the news and this creates a cascade of availability, reinforcing your biases. People ask, ‘but what if it is true, shouldn’t we be cautious?’ That is your little availability machine speaking to you. Fight back, question whether the information you’re using is true. Extreme caution is warranted only in the face of true uncertainty; it should not be a default position. It hardly needs to be said that not vaccinating causes a significantly higher risk of disease spreading in society.

Your fast-thinking brain is very good at living, but it is designed to meet challenges that are simple in nature, like avoiding lions on the plains of Africa. It’s not so good at new complex ideas, but it can be, as long as you work at it. Don’t let your first thoughts pervade your life; instead, use your capacity for reason to enhance it.

This first appeared in print in my column in Woroni, the student newspaper of The Australian National University, 29 August 2013.

When I was young I wanted to be a SCIENTIST. I wanted to pour over the literature; I wanted to argue about method. I especially wanted to spend hours traipsing about the wilderness in search of tiny little things that may or may not help my research, and I then particularly wanted to spend back breaking hours in a laboratory dissolving things in solutions and then blasting them with heat and lasers and collecting gasses and measuring them to within inches of their lives.

Naturally, I had visions of spending hours in front of a computer calculating the statistics and determining, within certain bounds, the exact results, resulting in a mystical dream of writing up the research. Of course I would then have it go backward and forward between peers (each with their own particular flavor of review) and finally, after six good productive months of politics and writing, those results would be published in a journal for most of the world not to read.

Of course, none of the above is true. That was not my childhood vision. I mean, I didn’t want to be a fireman or anything like that, sure, but what I’ve just described? No thanks!

No, I had dinosaurs! I grew up in the time where it was discovered that it was an asteroid that hit Earth and killed them! I was a child of the time of ‘Transformers’, and I was especially proud of a T-Rex transformer that I had that none of the other kids did. In hindsight, that just made me a spoilt brat.

I watched the occasional documentary, mostly because my grandmother and mother encouraged it. I remember seeing David Attenborough crack open a rock to reveal a fossil. I guess it was a trilobite, can’t remember, but wow, I was amazed!

I also had politics. My parents always had the ‘adult news’ on at 7pm – the national news, and the current affairs after. If I wanted to spend that time with my mum and dad, I was watching that. I didn’t have half a clue what these people were on about, but clearly it was important. My subsequent high school education ended up being all about science and mathematics, hardly surprising for a son of doctors. Although my best final marks were in English – pretty uncommon for a science and maths nerd.

Fast-forward about 10 years and I was studying science, specifically geology, at university. If you’re wondering about the time gap, I studied Law for about 3 years at one point, but it WILL NOT appear on my resume since I gracefully withdrew after, shall we say, attendance-related performance issues. I attended enough though to learn a bit about argument, or as they more commonly say, enough to be dangerous. I then worked in real estate for a year, which one might justifiable say that combined with my half-baked and inadequate legal training made me positively lethal.

So any way, after learning the art of snakes and snake oil, I went in to learning about rocks and well, other rocks. This 3-year journey of rocks and their interaction with other rocks and how they all relate to each other was so fascinating that I decided to do an honours project in geology for an extra year. In which I determined the age of some rocks from a costal area in my home state of Victoria (about 50 million years old, in case you’re wondering – I wouldn’t want to leave you hanging).

These rocks were basalts as it happens (like that which erupts from the volcanoes of Hawaii) but what is really important is that this got me out there, cracking open rocks and finding samples. It also involved considerable literature review and statistics and report writing. Remember the start of this essay?

One thing I did do while collecting little bits of rock was stand on a rocky shore platform looking for samples, all alone, in complete disregard of the risks. I am not exaggerating to say that I could have died that day. The water from that freak wave only reached my waist, but any further and I would have found myself in the water, possibly kilometers from land. It does happen. That’s why Universities don’t let people do what I did alone (actually they didn’t then either, I just kinda well, you know…)

Why am I telling you this? Well, it’s because there, there on that platform being hit with a freak wave, I did consider why I was doing it. At the time, I guess I just needed that sample. Badly – my degree depended on it! Plus, what a beautiful place to die! Only kidding.

Nine-odd further years later, I am asking the same questions, but this time, there are no freak waves. Since then, I’ve been staring at rocks and reports and trying to decide where the next big gold or nickel deposits might be found. I’ve worked for a couple of the biggest mining companies in the world, I’ve also slept in a swag in the middle of a frigid desert night between stints supervising dusty, loud drill rigs.

Through all of this, I have continued to have an almost child-like fascination in science and nature. I have read all the famous authors – Gould, Dawkins, Sagan, you name it. I watch the docos. I watch them again. I sometimes write stuff about things on my blog. I follow my little curiosities down the rabbit hole that might begin with a name, lead to a wiki search, and end in several journal articles and a whole new ‘issue de jour’ for the week. I get involved in skeptical arguments and pursue the philosophical reasoning they entail. I pity those around me sometimes; I suspect I am quite, as they politely say, “intense”.

So, I could tell you something about evolution, I could tell you a little about quantum physics (which is only to say, for example, that I could tell you about Schrodinger’s Cat, and also explain that no cats are involved). I could describe the Monty Hall problem and why it demonstrates how flawed our thinking can be.

Why would you listen to me though? I’m a geologist, not a philosopher, or physicist, or even a biologist. In fact, I have never done a single formal course in biology, and that includes school level biology (I did physics and chemistry and geography, there’s only so much room). I did read A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking, when I was in high school, but I’m not about to say I’m some sort of cosmologist.

I would ask you to listen only because it is interesting; for no other reason. I would appeal to your sense of intrigue. I am suggesting to you that the real world is far more interesting than anything that you might have seen in the Da Vinci Code or, God forbid, stuff about the megalodon shark in Shark Week.

The real world has every sort of mystery of the sort that Dan Brown wrote his fiction about. But the thing is, it’s not fiction. Even Brown’s fiction contains some real science and real history. And that is the point. Its not just science, it is history and culture too. They all link together to make this great big wonderful story. And anyone can be part of that. Anyone can be that investigator. The scientist at the frontline, and even, with time, the one that the President calls when the aliens land.

For that though you’re going to need skills. Investigative skills, particularly of the sort that can be verified and tested. And this is where you will need some scientific training. Or at least, a good appreciation of rational thought and how something can be known, objectively. You need to have an appreciation of why scientific reasoning has lead to the advances it has. After all, you trust planes not to fall out of the sky, right?

Either way, rejoice in your fascination for all things interesting. Science is not a specialized territory only inhabited by nerdy, bespectacled introverts who are always portrayed as nerdy, bespectacled introverts. In fact, most scientists are normal. Really, they are.

Most importantly, don’t worry if you don’t want to be a scientist. I was almost a lawyer, and there are plenty of other valid, interesting and important pursuits in life, and no, science is not the only ‘way of knowing’. All that said though, please learn about science and its methods. The modern world demands it.

 

Reposted from Medium: https://medium.com/architecting-a-life/369f86f61f79

Well that was ugly! A recent tweet from Prof. Richard Dawkins, probably the most famous atheist in the world, seriously upset people. His tweet consisted of neatly cherry-picked figures relating to the distribution of Nobel Prizes between Trinity College, Cambridge, and Islam. The point made, albeit incredibly droll and unenlightening, was that Islam had not produced as many Nobel Prizes as even just one very well regarded university college. His tweet:

“All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.”

Well that really stirred the pot, and the general complaint was that he was being a bigot, or as one writer eloquently put it “dressing up bigotry as non-belief”. It is hard not to see it this way.  I’m certainly not keen to get carried away on the ‘offensive’ argument, tending to agree with Stephen Fry on the value of claiming to be offended, but it was grossly provocative and quite lame, argumentatively.

Prof. Dawkins has responded in a longer blog post, and now we get to see what he really meant. His point is more subtle than the tweet and contains some interesting ideas (whilst also continuing on the theme of boring facts about Nobel Prizes though). To me, his longer post reminds me of what is great about Dawkins, and it is a crying shame that he has allowed his Twitter account to become a pariah.

Read the rest of this entry »

We do seem to be heading in dark direction. A world where we seek not evidence but instead opinions from friends and talk show hosts, a world where argument is all that is needed. A world, in short, where anything can be true if we only believe it.

In an attempt to keep the post short, I first observe that the Cassini spacecraft has taken its final look at Earth, an event mostly ignored despite its poignancy given its status as one of the last great exploratory missions to Space.

People, and the politicians who represent them, seem determined to look at short terms goals, especially financial, in the face of species-threatening climate change. (I wanted to link something there then realized there are too many examples…)

 ‘Journalists’ of science and technology seem comfortable to be creationists (apparently because the story is better).

Elections are contested as a race to the bottom for votes, rather than as a conversation on ideals, goals and aspirations for society.

In the face of this, the collective advancement of society’s knowledge seems to be localized to the ‘nerds’, and clearly the popularisation of nerds has done nothing to raise the status of their work. I’m glad I was never a fan of that American show, ‘The Big Bang Theory’ (somewhat more of a fan of its namesake though).

I remember laughing at a movie a number of years ago called “Idiocracy”. I now actually can see a day where humans attempt to feed crops with Gatorade and puzzle at why that doesn’t work.

We seem to have lost sight of the days when we looked to the stars and imagined how much more we could know, how much better we could be and pictured a glorious future for humankind.

I don’t know, perhaps I am prematurely a grumpy old man. Still, I do wonder how we can combat the level of unreason in society, and I fear where it will lead.

Simply because everyone else is raving on about the recent AAS survey, I thought I would too. How depressing it is to find that not the entire population of Australia knows that a year is measured by the time it takes for the Earth to do a lap of the Sun! And fresh water makes up what percent again of total water resources? How much of that is potable? Wait, that wasn’t one of the questions (probably would have require knowing what ‘potable’ means anyway).

Like many science commentators out there (and I won’t even try to list them all, but this is an excellent one, and this is an excellent one from the last time they did this survey), I breathed a sigh of “so what!” After which I sort of just found the whole thing depressing.

I tweeted earlier today that all I think it says is that 30-40% of Australians are not ‘natural naturalists’. That is, people who take a broad interest in scientific topics and fields and who tend to remember lots of the gory details. At the top level, these people are known as ‘polymaths’ – that is, they operate at near genius level in more than one scientific field. At the other end, they could be your average Joe who loves a good documentary (and is probably a fan of David Attenborough). In other words, they quite possibly are not scientists. And THAT is the point. Knowing certain facts about the world does not make you a scientist.

Others mentioned above have pointed out that science is about such things as approach to problems and method and application of analytical techniques. Generally, it is about concepts and thinking, not about facts. The facts fall out of the conceptual tree when you shake it hard enough.

So why does it depress me? Well I guess I am a bit of a ‘naturalist’ – I love to know about the world and how it works. Knowing why a year is as long as it is is part of that, to me. Finding out about natural phenomena is exciting! And even though my specialist field is geology, I am very interested in a range of things, some scientific, some not quite (like philosophy) and some not at all (art). So I consume all manner of things, and along the way I happen to remember a few things (although I will be the first to admit I have a terrible memory). I suppose I find it hard to understand why anyone else would not be the same.

So perhaps I am weird? Or perhaps not! Lurking in the 60% odd of people who knew stuff for the survey will be people like me! And some of them will be in or go on to scientific careers. I think Australia is pretty safe for now.

[But come on, people should know how long it takes for the Earth to go round the Sun, I mean, really?]

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