The bug is hanging on, and besides making it difficult to eat or work, it's making my brain very foggy yet. So I'm going to share a bit of previous writing with you. This is an essay from Jan. 29, 2002; written mostly out of frustration. It's written in the style of a newspaper Op Ed piece, though I've never pursued publication- the odds looked too long. The piece itself is too long- almost 3000 words, so I'm going to split it into 2 installments here. And, not to bushwack anyone, it includes a small number of words (maybe 4) children are usually not encouraged to use. They are necessary, I think.
The topics are bang on many of our recent discussions, here and on other blogs in this vicinity- and the statements are some I've run into nowhere else. We are in trouble; as a world. A huge part of the reason is our inability to understand our problems, communicate them, and decide what to do about them. We REALLY have to do something about that- and you know what? There is no chance the "governments" CAN; nor the "universities". They can't; at this point. I'm wondering, though, if the blogosphere might not actually have a crack at it. Though it's pushing on icebergs, always. I'll put up part 2 tomorrow. Do note the date this was written- I would not be patting the USA on the back so much today.
Pants On Fire
Jan 29, 2002
It’s pretty obvious to everyone these days that we (as in us humans) are all walking on thin ice, in terms of keeping everything (as in Life, the Universe, and) going. To most of us, all we need is a new dose of headlines to once again bring us to the pellucid realization that all of Humankind is teetering on the brink of destruction. Or as our great grandparents would have more briefly put it, the world is going to hell in a handbasket.
And it is, too. List any area of human endeavor, and you will quickly come up against major problems. Enron. Global warming. AIDS. Terrorism, real and imaginary. Opportunists using terrorism, real and imaginary, to advance their own agendas. Creeping up on us all is the suspicion that the crowing televangelists are right. The end is near.
America is a great place. No doubt about it. What an amazing experiment we are. We still, in fact, are breaking new ground constantly, in terms of what humans can do by way of self-government. We do try, very hard. I had the luck a number of years ago to have a job that took me into the offices of Congressmen and Senators, and into intimate conversations with a number of them. Lots of intimate conversations with their staffers. Sure, there were the stereotype slimy politicos that we all scorn, those just there for the power and sex. But I also met a lot of very sincere “good people”- folks who were there because they wanted to try to make things work. Very impressive, they were, in the face of the daily struggle with the endless crap. And I think there were more of them than there were slimeballs.
Cynicism is easy, and gets easier day by day. The reasons “things” don’t work is that the people in charge really don’t give a damn about them, we hear.
But in fact, they do; many of them. There are good people, even now, trying their hardest to keep the fabric of our world from unraveling. You know some too.
So how come it all seems to keep sliding downhill?
Our whole governmental and societal experiment was set up by some astoundingly smart people. When you dig into their system of checks and balances, and what they wrote and thought about them, it’s clear that here were a group of thinkers completely familiar with the history of human frailty. They knew to an amazing degree just how it is that rulers go wrong, and they gave long hard thought to how to prevent it.
Giving us the United States of America. What a place. At the age of 200, it still, mostly, functions; mostly dealing out what most would agree is a better form of government, and higher standard of justice, than is usually available elsewhere. All things considered, we do a pretty good job.
Still. Things are not looking very good at the moment; our government is creaky to the point of being a major source of humor for the rest of the world, as they watch us in amazement. And our whole decision making process feels both like we don’t control it, and like whoever does, is doing a really lousy job of deciding what gets done and what doesn’t.
Somehow, for example, the whole country seems to be in paralysis as we watch our government move us cheerfully down the path toward building a brand new, improved, Maginot Line In Space. No one wants a “missile defense”- no one with any brain imagines it will work; and any cretin with 20 lbs of plutonium would obviously be much more likely to just walk into the Stock Exchange and spread it all over as dust, instantly rendering New York uninhabitable for 10,000 years, rather than hope the 30 year old rocket he can buy would actually work. It’s obvious to the entire world that our New Maginot Line is to be built so that billions can be paid to defense contractor executives so they can build stuff that will never have to be used (apart from their new swimming pools and yachts)- and somehow we are all frozen in the headlights.... where is the voice, any voice, of serious opposition to this moronic undertaking? The paralysis itself is paralyzing.
We stand here stupefied. How and where did our joint decision making process go so wrong?
As it happens, I am intimately familiar with another case in point, and I can see quite clearly how it went wrong. Yes, I’d be delighted to share it with you; I thought you’d never ask.
It’s Global Warming; a Really Big Problem. Is it real? Oh, please. Of course it is, how can you not see, understand, and get it? Yes. It’s real. And yes, we’re in deep shit.
It has been obvious for decades. Literally. I have been an invited speaker at 3 major international Global Warming conferences, in 1988 and 1989, kind of at the outset of “large discussion” of the problem; and again in 2002. Our decision making process has been basically motionless, the whole time.
We rely, in the age of science, on scientific “opinion” to guide our deliberations. If you want to do the right thing, you have to ask the people who know what’s true. Your senator has more than one staffer whose main job is to get good scientific input.
But, actually, it doesn’t work that way. In truth, we rely on scientific opinion, as reported; by reporters. That’s what we vote by, and call our senators by.
No, I don’t think reporters are bad, or stupid; nor are the scientists. I wish it were that simple. Mencken comes to mind; “There's always an easy solution to every human problem -- neat, plausible, and wrong.”
This ISN’T simple, so pay attention. We’re all supposed to be big boys and girls now, and a little complexity past 2 + 2 shouldn’t scare us.
I grew up exposed to tremendous language differences. So quite early, I noticed that not all people who think they are speaking the same language, actually are. The seminal experience came when I was moved, at the age of 6, from Boston to Cherry Point, North Carolina; and at my first recess, on the playground, one of my new classmates approached me purposefully, placed his nose within 2 inches of mine, and demanded forcefully “Rrryewayangeerrrareb?” *
He was obviously utterly serious, and I had no idea, none, zero, zip, what he had said, or what he was talking about. As I puzzled about it over the years, it became clear to me that not only did I not comprehend the word, but the concepts within were a blank also; I had never heard of a Yankee, nor a Reb, nor had I any comprehension of their relationship. But it was all of the highest importance to my classmate. We did not become friends. The experience was useful when we next moved to Guam, and my classmates did not have English as their mother tongue.
And I was put on my guard about how remarkably common it is for humans to speak to each other, hold what passes for a conversation, and leave the conversation reasonably satisfied; but with no information having changed hands.
Scientists, journalists, “policy makers”, and the general public, are doing this now, big time. More than when our governmental guidebook was conceived.
Scientists, journalists, “policy makers”, and the general public do not, in fact, speak the same languages; and they do not know it. We need interpreters, and have none; don’t even know we need them. Sure, we have “science writers”- sorry, but it’s not enough; not even close. The technical jargons of different specialities have diverged to the point where they are genuinely different languages. To make it more confusing, most of our scientists actually believe they speak English. But they don’t. I am dead serious about this.
So, we’re at this big meeting on “climate change”, aka global warming. It’s 1988, earlyish in this discussion. All the climate modelers are there, talking about their models; all the reporters are there, listening to the scientists give their reports.
The scientists say; “The data are not yet conclusive; though the indications are strong, and point out the need for more study.”
The reporters, and congressional staffers, report that the scientists aren’t sure about what is going on, and want more study. Now there’s a headline.
I was there. Been there, saw and heard that. And neither scientists nor journalists nor staffers realized that they did not understand the conversation, simple as it appears.
Both scientist and journalist are victims of their professional training, which in both cases is designed to produce the most “truth”. But alas, unbeknownst to the noncommunicants, their operating definitions of “truth” are entirely different.
Both scientist and journalist are thoroughly professional; and it is professional suicide to speak, in public, using definitions of words that differ from their professional standard.
What very few layfolk know is that scientists have hammered into them a spectacularly rigid and demanding definition of “true” that no one else in the world uses. A thing is “true” if, and ONLY if, you can say so with a mathematically calculated probability greater than 95%. And if you can’t quantify and calculate it, don’t even think about it.
Ah, if only we could look at our politicians, and know that there were a 95% chance they were telling us the truth. In the real world, we’re used to judging the veracity of our leaders knowing at best we can give them a 60% chance. God, I’d love a politician I could believe 50% of the time.
So, what was really going on in 1988 was that the climate data the scientists were looking at, with huge variables, was only giving them mathematical “certainty levels” of around 85%. So, there’s an 85% chance, that this climate bobble is due to “real” global changes. Only 85%. The journalist hears “well, the data aren’t conclusive yet, but it’s interesting”, because scientists will be defrocked if they state in public that something is probably true, when the probability is less than 95%. You think I’m kidding? Ask a scientist.
The congressional staffer goes back, and says, well, they’re not sure yet. Hard to move decisively on that.
If any of us went to Atlantic City, and were given the chance to bet on a game where the chances of winning were “only” 85%, what would we do?
You and I both know; we’d bet the farm, and the wife and kids; you’re never going to get that close to a sure thing again.
The next layer of this onion is that the journalists also have a professional standard that turns out to be a catastrophe for truthseekers. Journalists are taught always, always, to provide a balanced report.
So they go to the meeting; a bunch of scientists are looking VERY worried, because they personally would bet exactly the same way you and I would in Atlantic City, and the journalist says, “hm, what does the opposition say?” And they look for contrarian scientists. Of course, they find them.
What shows up in the newspaper is that “some scientists are worried, but not sure”, and “other scientists say the first guys are full of crap.” This is very satisfying for a lot of journalists, who don’t want global warming to be true any more than the rest of us do, don’t like those smart ass science guys much anyway, and are glad they can’t agree on anything, and we’re given a lovely, balanced report, with all views represented.
What they failed to report, in 1988, was that only, say, 85% of the scientists were in total agreement that we were/are in deep shit (but not sure) and only 15% of appropriate scientists were in the contrarian position. (Incidentally, it’s only about 5% in the contrary position today.)
They also cannot point out, because of libel laws and professional courtesy, that most of that 15% of naysayers were professional assholes.
Oddly, universities frown on professors calling each other names like that, or telling truths like that. But we’ve all met them. In every college department, there’s the prof who got there more out of perseverance than brilliance; is pissed off at the world that they’re not really very bright, and have discovered that they can get lots of people to listen to them if they just stand up and say “BULL!” from time to time. These types are inescapable and ubiquitous.
The real equation, in 1988, was that 85% of the scientists who studied the problem were 85% sure we were heading for horrifyingly serious problems, and the majority of their opposition were known fools.
I do not think the journalists understood that.
And what they reported was: no one is sure, and Dr. Billy, a colorful contrarian, says “BULL!”.
I would like to think that our Congress, if given the actual information that almost all sound scientists agreed the trouble was real, would have started taking some kind of action about it all.
Fool that I am.
That, in fact, is what the scientists were saying- "we're in very big, very serious trouble, and need to do something about it now." But they were completely unable to communicate that to anyone- except other scientists.
*"Are you a Yankee, or a Reb?" inquiring whether I considered myself a part of the North, or the South, in the US Civil War (1861-1865). Our readers not from the USA may be surprised to learn that the "North" is under the impression this war is over, but many in the South still do not accept that idea.