Twitter FaceBook
Home
Aug
24
xfactor

With the future of the Australian parliament still hanging in that weird limbo of a pre-minority-government, I’m reminded of various conversations I’ve had with a good friend and fellow critical thinker about something we like to call ‘evidence based government‘. In the last few years there has been a slow proliferation of websites and blogs highlighting the merits of scientific and skeptical thinking in areas which are often the target of shysters and snake-oil peddlers; particularly on the internet where’s it’s oh so easy to spin a line of pseudo-scientific claptrap and not get called on it.
So along these lines we now have some voices of reason ranging from Science Based Medicine and its partner in crime Science Based Pharmacy, to Science Based Parenting and Evidence Based Management all based on the simple understanding that any claims someone cares to make about the material universe must by their material nature be empirically testable and verifiable, and crucially that decisions should be made on the basis of good evidence, not instinct, hunches, fantasy or falsehoods.

Politics is often treated with kid gloves though. At first appearance it might seem, and is often argued by notable skeptics, to be a subject too murky and prone to fireworks to address critically (i.e. in the way they’ll happily indulge in for medicine or the paranormal).
This is a cop-out in my opinion, not least of all because it’s perfectly possible to engage in a discussion about how political systems do or don’t work without necessarily descending into an overtly political debate. The fact is that political pundits and politicians, regardless of ideology, are constantly making material claims without supporting them by evidence; or at the most relying on the two worst forms of evidence, namely individual anecdotes and popular opinion polling.
To illustrate this let’s create a hypothetical politician, Polly. Polly is on the campaign trail making his speeches and says something like:

Wherever I go around this wonderful country I hear stories just like those of young Billy here, that there are never enough Legos to go around. Friends, my opponent has done nothing to invest in vital Lego infrastructure! Not a single thing!… I give you my pledge today that if elected I will invest heavily in Lego, particularly the latest Space Lego, so vital to the future of our country!

Campaigns are full of such hyperbole, but let’s just take a moment to pick it apart. The story Polly hears from Billy, and presumably ‘many’ other little Billys is simply an anecdote. Even if it’s an accurate representation of what Billy believes, and even if Polly is being completely honest that he hears a similar story everywhere he goes, it still has almost no evidentiary value. No matter how well travelled Polly is, no matter how many hands he’s shaken or babies he’s kissed; the very nature of the places he visits, the people who are attracted to his stump speeches, and his own inclination to credit ideologically favourable interactions more highly means that he’s never going to get anything like a statistically representative sample of his constituency.
After this he makes an entirely testable and verifiable claim about his opponent’s lack of action, but one which immediately stretches credibility. On an issue of such alleged importance it seems unlikely that the opponent would have done nothing at all to address it, and while the degree of any such action is a fair point for a debate between the two candidates, the unfounded and implausible claim adds nothing to such a debate.
We let our politicians get away with this kind of stuff all the time, as if it’s just a natural part of the political process over which we have no control, and which we shouldn’t really get too hot under the collar about. But is it? Polly himself gives us the criteria by which we can measure his relative success, should he be elected. Presumably his opponent did the same in the preceding election cycle… And yet time after time it seems we’re expected to discard those presumptive critera and apply a newer, more subjective set at the next election.
Sometimes there may really be a need to do that, but should we be prepared to do it regularly? Without any explanation?

My second bugbear is that politicians rely on a seemingly endless array of logically inconsistent and fallacious arguments. We’re happy enough to pick away at these when they’re made by proponents of quack cures, moon hoax conspiracies, or for-profit religions; why not our elected representatives?
There is a great list of logical fallacies at SkepticWiki, and if you have the time it’s good fun to browse through them with a mind to politics and politicians, but a few obvious ones stand out… Take it away Polly:

The Ad Hominem:
My opponent doesn’t know anything about Legos because he’s not married.

The Straw Man:
My opponent will never invest in Lego infrastructure. If he gets his way you’ll wake up one morning to find all Lego banned, and the only thing to play with will be that communist Meccano stuff.

The non causa pro causa (correlation confused with causation):
Since my opponent never invested in Lego and we had a recession, clearly our Lego deficiency is a serious economic burden.

The Argument from Incredulity
I can’t imagine how anyone could enjoy playing with Meccano, so Lego is the best infrastructure choice for this country.

I could go on, and on, and on, but you get the idea. These kinds of arguments are so common that even when we disagree we still tend to accept their fallacious nature and try to argue against them on the merits, which is a pretty unstable foundation by that point.

I think we can, and are entitled to demand better from our politicians. In this case ‘Evidence Based Politics‘ has nothing to do with the ideological spectrum, but describes the way in which I’d prefer that politicians represented their respective political positions.
I don’t believe that the burden here rests on the politicians themselves, but on us as an informed electorate. The nature of politics is such that politicians need to be responsive to their audience, and although at times it might seem like the authority flows from them down to us, in reality (at least in western democracies) the opposite is true. Regardless of what your political views are, the whole exercise of political discourse would be well served by constituents who increasingly ask their representatives a few simple questions, not as a challenge, but stemming from an earnest desire to have an informed debate:

  1. What is your evidence for that claim?
  2. Can you make that argument logically consistent?
  3. Is success quantifiable based on your own past criteria?

Of course politicians try to duck hard questions by answering their own,  or with the polite brush-off, and I’d be extremely naive to think that this is a roadmap to perfect politics, it’s really more of a target for soft but constant pressure. Perhaps it’s best directed at the candidates we support, rather than the ones we don’t, so that in helping to reinforce their their rickety old soapboxes with a little reason and empiricism we’re being supportive of the policies we want to see developed rather than hostile to those we don’t.

xfactor
1:07
 
Aug
19
xfactor

How do you like your apocalypse? Sweet and creamy, or dark and bitter? Do you prefer to linger over it, enjoying all the nuances, or do you want it to grab you by the collar and smack some sense into you?… Do you care where your apocalypse comes from? How it’s grown, the details of the slow-roast? Or does it only matter that it’s piping hot and sitting there in front of you?
Within the genre there’s a phenomenon, more evident in films than in books, in which the apocalypse occurs without it’s ‘post’ or the post-apocalypse exists as a setting without any precursory explanation. The best examples that I can think of respectively are 2004’s ‘The Day After Tomorrow‘ and last year’s ‘The Road‘. Both situations annoy me, because in each one I want at least a little of the other, and I’m denied that.

The Day After Tomorrow spends all its time setting up quite a unique post-apocalyptic scenario, with a new ice age having descended so rapidly upon the world that cities outside the tropics (presumably in both hemispheres) are literally encased in ice. Wow. You don’t see that every day. And just at the point where the possibilities of the scenario begin to dawn on you and the wider implications start to become evident, the film ends… “What about all that stuff left behind!?!” My inner survivalist screams. Those new possibilities inspire me; of mining through the ice into a relatively untouched office block or police armory, then humping a load of old-world goods back on a clapped out old snowmobile to trade them with the warm-bloods in the higher latitudes (I’m a southern hemisphere lad); of crossing a frozen Bass Straight from Tasmania to the Australian mainland to do so; of fleeing the first polar bears, introduced to the environment by some well-meaning fool. Sure I can imagine all of that myself, but there should really have been some outlet for it within the film. It’s like being left with a condescending pat on the shoulder and a “There’s still hope for you son” from the hardy old filmmakers, before they stalk off into the blizzard leaving us all alone in their frozen wilderness. Great. Thanks guys. That really helps.

The Road has the opposite problem. Of course its problems begin earlier, by being a book hailed as revolutionary by the Oprah Winfrey book club crowd, the vast majority of whom have probably never had a prior apocalyptic fiction experience. It’s gripping and well written, but it’s no revolution in the genre, and it suffers from a major flaw in my opinion which translates to the film; There’s no explanation for how that world got the way it did. The author, Cormac McCarthy, offers up the excuse that he didn’t want a preachy message detracting from the father/son story. But there’s clearly an environmentalist subtext there anyway, so why not just come right out and deal with it? Personally I consider that a cop-out.
Referring back to my previous post regarding the criteria I apply to these texts, how am I supposed get any insight into what the author values if there’s no indication of what was lost (in their apocalypse), and how? Or what remains, and why? For all the contextual background we’re given, that father/son story could just as easily have been set with the protagonists lost in the wilderness, fending off wild animals and trying to make their way back to civilisation. As far as I’m concerned it doesn’t matter if the explanation for an apocalypse is plausible or not, if it’s scientifically sound or contemporaneously sensitive, just as long as it’s offered.

So for me the flavour of the apocalypse isn’t all that important; I’ll happily drink them all, even if my personal preference tends toward creamy, with just enough sugar to cut that bitter edge. But whether it’s Fair Trade or mass manufactured, unground beans or instant, I absolutely have to know where and how it’s grown, and the details of the slow-roast are vital.

xfactor
14:15
 
Aug
18
xfactor

Whee! It’s early evening and I’ve managed to procrastinate away an entire day by doing something I’ve been meaning to do for… well… months; namely set up this website properly. Which is an interesting phenomena in itself, procrastinating on one thing by finally doing something else that I’ve spent a seemingly endless amount of time procrastinating on. It all seems to work out in the end though, so yay me.

Now, to kick things off lets start with a quick explanation for why I’m so fascinated by apocalyptic fiction. It’s got nothing to do with morbid fantasies about the world ending, but rather it’s an offshoot of a more general fascination I have with social, cultural and individual values. I think more than any other genre the apocalypse story lends insight into the author’s perspective on their own society, and it’s relatively easy to read that from the text by applying a few simple assumptions, for instance that:

  • Those social/cultural elements which an author values highly but fears are fleeting, or at risk, are the ones prominently lost in their apocalypse.
  • Those elements which they value highly and believe are enduring form the basis of social cohesion in whatever changed world their protagonists find themselves.
  • From the negative perspective, the fearful but fleeting are represented in the ‘social ills’ that the protagonists seek to avoid repeating, and finally;
  • The fearful and enduring elements of society become the forces of antagonism within the text.

Now perhaps those categories are broad enough to apply to any genre if you read deeply enough into it, but the authors of apocalypse fiction wear their proverbial hearts on their sleeves in this regard. The zombie apocalypse is an easy example to illustrate this point with, variations in the basic lore notwithstanding.

  • Positive but Fleeting: On a personal level, the concepts of individual choice and freedom, the power of reason and self-control over pure instinct; on a social level the sustainability of personal relationships (or any relationship for that matter).
  • Positive and Enduring: Determination, the inclination to strive even in the face of a hopeless situation, and an existentialist appreciation for the moment.
  • Negative but Fleeting: In some cases the petty factionalism which a common enemy often supersedes (à la Max Brooks), resource overconsumption (which the zombies themselves represent), the frivolous and the self-indulgent.
  • Negative and Enduring: Entropy, and that general sense of unease about what the future might hold for us as a species despite our best efforts.

They’re the broad strokes. Very, very broad strokes (even within the Zombie Apocalypse genre there’s plenty of discrepancy), but you get the general idea. Each author and every text has its own nuances so it’s an endlessly interesting enterprise, even without being able to enjoy some really fun books and films. I’ll no doubt revisit this again in the future but for now I just wanted to add that with a new Red Dawn film scheduled for release hopefully this year (I gather it’s in limbo despite being nearly complete) I can’t wait to compare it to the original, which is still one of my favourite examples of Cold War cinema; dating as it does from a time just before we discovered what a basket case the Soviet Union really was.

xfactor
19:43
 
xfactor
xfactor
Subscribe RSSxfactor
 
xfactor
profile
The Dose

What if every act of imagination were the seed from which a new universe grew?
What universes would you then be responsible for having crafted from the ether of the multiverse?
Mine may well be full of zombies, soviet invasions, apocalyptic wastelands, strange empires and their even stranger inhabitants, but I'd like to think that despite their idiosyncrasies they all share a general sense of hope for their respective futures.

My own little universes, made to scale...
They are the Markrocosm.
xfactor
In collaboration with Jackpotjoy Bingo, Virgin Bingo and 32Red Casino.
Designed by