Monday, 6 February 2017

Risk




OK, quick pop quiz. You live in a major western capital, population 5 million. What would be more likely to kill you in a given time, a terror attack per week that kills 100 people or a 1% annual chance of nuclear destruction?

This isn't hard maths. 50x100 in a year would be 5,000 terror deaths. 1% chance of 5 million deaths is 50,000. The nuclear attack is TEN TIMES more likely to kill you.

What we have in the current sphere is of course a lot, lot less than one terror attack per week per capital. One per year of that size is significantly odds against. In London we've had one in living memory (7/7). There's always a small chance of a 9/11 style larger attack but in 20 years that's happened once in one capital with 3,000 deaths.

What I'm getting at of course is that we over-estimate the risk *to ourselves* of the small, localised attack and under-estimate the risk of the unlikely but devastating global event. Any time a terror attack of that size happens, a good example would be the Paris attack last year, it's all over the news for days. We see the pictures, it sticks in our minds. We're being told about the terrorist threat all the time. How often do you hear about the nuclear threat? Finger in the air, you might hear about the terrorist threat 100x as often, when it's the nuclear threat that's 100x more likely to kill you. That's probably an underestimate in both cases.

During the US election campaign, and now more than ever, this was the main reason I was anti-Trump. There are a shit-ton of other reasons of course, but completely aside from policy, completely aside from the misogyny and racism, the number one issue for me is not ending up trapped under a pile of rubble with third degree burns, dying by inches screaming for water. Trump is mentally unstable and completely unsuitable, in terms of temperament, to control the US nuclear arsenal. And control it he does, the whole system is SET UP to ensure that the President has immediate and unrestricted control of the system.

This is what worries me far, far more than a random terror attack. This is why, in practical terms leaving morality and ethics aside, it simply does not make sense to defend the Trump administration because they are "making us safer". Trump is in his seventies, and as pointed out on Twitter, if you see clips of him from even 15-20 years ago it's very striking how much more articulate and generally together he is (while still being an awful person LDO). He is in mental decline, I still believe that it's a job he didn't want, at least to start with, and the constant criticism is something he's not at all used to facing.  If he lasts 2 years (if we last 2 years) I can see him going full Howard Hughes. Howard Hughes with the nuclear codes.

Sleep well.

* Image is the album cover to Megadeth's "Risk". Much criticised at the time for being too radio-friendly, I quite like it.

** Anyone who actually reads this might notice I have deleted the previous post on Whataboutery. I just don't think on reflection it's particularly strong.

Saturday, 21 January 2017

Is This The Real Life?

This is a departure from what I've been writing about so far, but something that I've been looking into recently and that seems to make a lot of sense to me in terms of how our brains evolved and how modern life has subverted that evolution.

I stumbled across a video on YouTube about porn addiction, and I must admit my first thought was "Porn is fine, masturbation is natural, this is just prudery".  It turns out though, maybe not.  I'm not going to go deep (sorry) into this particular topic right now as it certainly merits a post, if not many posts, of its own.  If you are interested a good starting point is yourbrainonporn.com .

The basic thrust (sorry, I'll stop now) of the argument is that we evolved in an environment of scarcity.  If you saw food, especially energy-rich food like fruit, best to eat it.  If you had a chance for sex, best to take it.  That's how you passed your genes on.  Our brains evolved to reward these behaviours with the associated endorphin rush.

Now though, we are not in an environment of scarcity.  That sugar-rich food isn't halfway across a forest, it's in the shop down the road, or your fridge.  You don't have to find a sexual partner from another tribe [1] , in fact you don't have to find a sexual partner at all.  A few clicks on your laptop and even though you're not actually having sex, you "win" the same endorphin rush at the end.
And so we come to fairly standard addiction theory, where each rush isn't quite as good as the last and you have to find more, different, better ways to scratch the itch.  It's all about the dopamine receptors, look it up if you're interested.

This can manifest itself in more subtle ways too.  Let's have a look at three areas.  Firstly, sport.  Sport has in some ways replaced the things we used to do to survive, like hunting and fighting.  Sports like football have a clear relationship to the hunt, where team mates communicate, organise themselves spatially and physically exert themselves for a common goal.  Target sports like golf directly mimic throwing your spear or shooting your arrow at the prey, giving that "rush" when you nail it between the eyes, or next to the pin.

The problem is, playing sport is quite hard.  You have to be fit, you have to practice the technique, you have to find a team, be picked, fit in.  A bit less so in individual sports but you still have to make the effort.  How much easier is it now to put on your replica shirt and turn on the TV.  Cheer the goals and call the phonein to say how great "we" were or how the referee robbed "us".  But while you share in the rush, you're not reaping any of the actual benefits of *playing* sport.  You're not any fitter, you haven't improved your people skills by working as a team, you don't have the satisfaction of working towards a goal and achieving it.

I realised some time ago that I had a real problem with this, and you may have noticed now that I don't tweet much about QPR.  In fact I generally try to find something else to do during games, something better than pressing F5 every minute to see if I win the good hit or the bad hit.  In my twenties I used to go and watch a lot, which at least involving getting off my arse and into the fresh air, but it was an expression of a frustrated desire to actually play myself.  You can see now, if you like, how the most "passionate" fans are often in awful physical condition.

Another area I'm very familiar with is poker.  This one is something of a double edged sword though.  Online poker probably did destroy my ability to play live poker.  Once I was used to 6 tables at once online, live poker seemed interminably slow.  But...online poker was much more profitable and live poker was always annoying to some degree simply because every table of 9 would generally have at least two complete arseholes whose only goal was to irritate people while losing as slowly as possible.  Online poker gave me a career, my independence and a great deal to be satisfied about how I applied myself to it...but at one point it certainly had many hallmarks of addiction.  In the end I tired of it, and to be honest I wasn't really winning much if at all towards the end.  All the same, I do miss that high of winning a tournament!  Now I'm more involved in sports betting I try to sweat the games at an absolute minimum - that up-down pleasure-pain reaction to every result or even every shot isn't good for you or your betting.

The last one I'm going to touch on today is interacting with people online.  It is better than nothing, but it's really not as good as going out there and being face to face.  In many ways it's a lot easier on the Internet, especially if you're arguing with someone.  It's easier to be rude, it's easier to change the subject, if you're put on the spot it's easier to google up a link and say "what about this" than it is to actually respond to a point in real time.  The same can be said of making fun of people on TV, or a good old Internet pile-on.  There's also no possibility of being thumped in the face, as Richard Spencer found out yesterday.  It's easy to have those "hits" without the effort of thinking about it, or reading the other person's cues, or even trying to understand what they're saying at all.

The common theme is that taking easy dopamine hits is great in the now...but not so good for you medium and long term.  Taking that easy hit means you don't achieve any of the ancillary benefits of "working* for it.  Get out there and do it for real.  I'm going to try, and if you do go off and look at the research on porn, I'm trying out a "reboot" for myself!

[1] Not your own tribe because incest generally doesn't turn out well over generations.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

The Scientific Method

I wanted to talk a little bit about the scientific method, as I touched on it in both the previous posts.  There is a common misunderstanding (wilful or otherwise) that science lurches back and forward from one position to another - and thus you don't have to believe what it's saying right now, if you don't want to.  Now it's true that science is always evolving, that it isn't dogmatic and that it's always questioned and tested.  This is of course a GOOD THING (How to be Topp capitals).  But science generally builds on what has gone before, it doesn't tear it down.  As Newton said "I can only see so far because I stand on the shoulders of giants".

Here's an example from my first piece about Impossible Expectations, a quote from Trump transition team member Anthony Scaramucci

"There was an overwhelming science that the Earth was flat. And there was an overwhelming science that [...] we were the center of the world. A hundred percent, you know, we get a lot of things wrong in the scientific community. You and I both know that."

Taking his first example, no, there was not "an overwhelming science" that the Earth was flat.  It was what people believed.  We like to think we're much cleverer than primitive societies, but as Newton said again, that's only because we stand on the shoulders of giants.  If no one had ever told us, most of us would instinctively believe that the Earth was flat.  It looks flat.  A few might wonder about how ships drop below the horizon but that's about it.

People believed the Earth was flat *until* a very clever man called Eratosthenes applied the scientific method.  He devised and conducted an experiment [1] that would have one result if the Earth was flat, and another if it was a sphere.  He performed it and not only demonstrated that the Earth was a sphere [2], he estimated its diameter with remarkable accuracy.  Prior to that there was no "scientific position", because no one had done any science to try to find out.

Similarly, people believed that the Sun rotated around the Earth for a long time because it wasn't possible to perform an experiment to test it.  Even when Copernicus came up with his heliocentric theory, while it clearly fitted observation in a much simpler way (no need to screw around with epicycles), it wasn't possible to test it until telescopes improved and people like Brahe and Kepler could make the necessary measurements.  Once the scientific method of theory, prediction and experiment was able to take effect, it solved the problem.

For a final example, going back to Newton, while Newtonian physics was overtaken by Einstein, it's important to stress that Newton wasn't *wrong*.  His theories of motion were perfectly consistent with what he could observe at the time, and they work perfectly well until you approach the very small (subatomic scale), very large (galactic scale) and/or very fast (the speed of light).  If an Einstein had come up with his theories in the 18th century, there would have been no way to test them.  By the latter 20th century though, we could do things like fly atomic clocks around on planes and see gravitational lensing in action to test and verify his theoretical work [3] [4]

So while there are occasions where accepted science is wrong, they're quite rare and you have to do better than "science once thought the Earth was flat".  People thought the Earth was flat.  Some still do, although most modern "Flat Earth” types just enjoy arguing about it because they have nothing better to do.  A better example might be Lysenko's work in the Soviet Union, which certainly wasn't accepted worldwide and had a large element of ideology thrown in.

One reason for the popular conception that science “keeps changing its mind” is the way tabloids, particularly the Mail and Express which are notorious for this, like to pick up and sensationalise individual studies (rather than the scientific consensus).  Every now and then a study “reveals” that chocolate cures cancer, or causes cancer.  Why oh why can't these scientists make their minds up?  Because you're cherry-picking individual studies that are, by and large, not confirmed by the scientific method of peer-review, repeatability and use of proper sample sizes.  Unfortunately, by the time this is disconfirmed, the papers have moved on to the next half-arsed study about how drinking wine prevents Alzheimers, or causes it.  All fun and games until you have a situation like the Wakefield paper on vaccines and autism which has caused untold damage despite having been quickly and fully refuted by the scientific community.

Sooo, in conclusion, science does not have to be taken as gospel.  It can, and indeed should, be subject to constant testing, review and improvement.  However, the science we have at the moment is the result of huge amounts of continuous research by smart, qualified people.  Experts.  If you do want to contradict them, the onus is on you.  The burden of proof is on you, and you have to do a lot better than just saying “nuh-uh”.  I'll expand on this in the next post about Arguments From Authority.

[1] It really is very clever, I recommend looking it up.
[2] Yes alright, an oblate spheroid.  Close enough for someone in the 3rd century BC.
[3] And indeed the recent discovery of gravitational waves is another vindication of an Einsteinian prediction.
[4] Another one is that Satnavs wouldn't work if they didn't correct for relativistic effects of time, inasmuch as they work anyway, mine keeps sending me down dead ends :(.

Thursday, 29 December 2016

On Consensus

Yesterday I made a couple of tweets about consensus of opinion, and how various groups talk about a lack of consensus in the scientific community when the lack of consensus among their own community is orders of magnitude larger.

Now, the climate change debate is a great contemporary example of this, we have the US President Elect talking about how there isn't a scientific consensus on the subject.  But for the purposes of this argument I'm going with something less controversial as an example - the parallels with climate science opposition should be clear enough.

Let's look at creationism in its various forms.  Creationists like to talk about gaps in the fossil record, they like to talk about the things science doesn't yet know (e.g. exactly how the jump was made from chemistry to life [1]).  However, if you actually look at different schools of creationism, you see completely irreconcilable differences, usually deriving from how literally proponents interpret the bible.

Consider the question, how come the Earth looks like it's 4.5 billion years old.  Anyway you slice it, from any branch of Earth Science or Astronomy, you always come up with the same answer.  4.5 or to be exact 4.567 billion years old (easy to remember :)).  Within creationism there are at least 3 different *inconsistent* answers to the question "How come the Earth looks like it's 4.5 billion years old", and I summarise:

1. No it doesn't.  Really, there are plenty of books out there and plenty of people arguing that the science is wrong, carbon dating isn't valid, the astronomical arguments are wrong, all sorts of stuff.

2. Because god made it look like that on purpose.  Either as a test of faith or simply because mysterious ways, what can you do.  This argument is at least self-consistent, although amusingly, logically it's exactly the same as arguing that everything was created 10 seconds ago complete with fake memories. [2]

3. It is 4.5 billion years old, the bible should be taken metaphorically rather than literally, god set the wheels in motion etc. etc.

My point is not to spend time debunking these arguments, fun as that can be, but simply to point out that they are *completely inconsistent with each other*.  A creationist making argument 3 actually has a lot more common ground with the scientific view than he does with creationist making argument 1.  But, correct me if I'm wrong, I never hear creationists discussing with each other which version is correct.  They're just all lining their guns up against the scientific consensus, and even more than that, enjoy trying to exaggerate very small scientific differences of opinion, or gaps in the knowledge, that are mere cracks compared to the Grand Canyons between *each other*.

Likewise in Intelligent Design vs Evolution, there are various different evolution arguments like everything was created in situ 6000 years ago with no changes since ;  evolution has happened since Noah's Ark (to deal with the problem that a 100 foot Ark could hardly have accomodated every single species of life we have today) ; and again it actually is what we see but god started off the process, and so on.

We can also see this in climate change opposition, we can see it in conspiracy theories like 9/11 - some people argue the planes were holograms, some argue they were packed with explosives and directed by the Government, all kinds of arguments that again can't be reconciled with each other.  Some moon landing hoaxers say nothing has ever been outside the Van Allen belts, some say only the first missions were fake, etc., all the while hanging their own arguments on tiny inconsistencies in the official accounts.

So I think that's probably enough for now, I was going to expand into the scientific method but I'll leave that for another post.  In the meantime it's a big red flag when people arguing against a scientific or "official" position can't agree amongst themselves about what the "real truth" is, and even more so when they're trying to talk about a lack of consensus in the scientific community or "official account", which is often simply the fine print being discussed and debated as of course it should be.

[1] Whatever life is, the definition itself is remarkably hard to pin down.

[2] One thing with this argument is that it should take all physical evidence off the table.  If god can make anything just so, why not satan?  Or the easter bunny?  But the same people are often happy to point at a few bits of wood on Mount Ararat and say "Ha!  Physical evidence of the Ark!"

Monday, 19 December 2016

Impossible Expectations

This is the first in a series of however many posts I feel like posting about the way debate is carried out on social media and in the outside world.  It frustrates the hell out of me seeing the same fallacies trotted out repeatedly and I just want to alert your attention to them.  Be very sceptical about people who use these devices, and always try to catch yourself using them before it's too late!

The Impossible Expectations argument is a simple concept - it's when someone demands a ridiculously high, perhaps even impossible, standard of proof for an argument they are against.  A standard which they invariably do not apply to sources of information that fit their existing narrative.  That's it in broad terms, but I'm going to talk about a specific variant of it that I see repeatedly.  In a nutshell "you were wrong about something once so I can disregard everything you say".  The Impossible Expectation is that the source must have always been 100% right about everything from day one!

Here are a couple of examples.  First up the internet comment section made flesh and somehow voted into the most powerful position in the world, Donald Trump.  Trump denied CIA reports that Russian hacking had influenced the election campaign with the argument, from his own Twitter and a statement released by his transition team

"These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction" [1]

Often the argument is used in relation to science, another example from Trump's transition team member Anthony Scaramucci

"There was an overwhelming science that the Earth was flat. And there was an overwhelming science that [...] we were the center of the world. A hundred percent, you know, we get a lot of things wrong in the scientific community. You and I both know that." [2]

Both claims are at the least debatable, but even allowing that they were true, so what?  It sounds superficially convincing, oh hey well they were wrong about this, but it's a lazy, worthless argument.  To err is human.  Have the speakers themselves ever been wrong about anything?  Can we disregard them entirely on that basis?

There are also different ways of being wrong, some much worse than others.  Making a prediction that doesn't turn out to happen is hardly a sin.  If 55% of the betting predictions I made were accurate I'd be living on a tropical island somewhere, not sitting here in the pitch dark at half past four.  Honest mistakes happen.  But how can you tell if a mistake is honest?  Largely by the person's response when it's pointed out.  An honest debator accepts it and corrects it.  A dishonest debator ignores it and even doubles down by repeating it later.  Finally there are deliberate attempts to deceive.  If a source is caught *deliberately* making false claims or statements, you'd be right not to trust it, especially if it happens repeatedly.

In the general case though, if this is one of someone's main arguments, be sceptical.  Even more so than usual.  To keep your guard up against this argument, keep it specific and keep it short.  During the election campaign, someone on the Democratic side posted something along the lines of "130 terrible things about Trump".  Opening themselves up to the counter "hey look, number 117 isn't true because X.  THEREFORE I CAN REJECT YOUR ENTIRE LIST".

I'll hopefully have a bit more to say about sources and how to evaluate them in a later post, but I'll leave it there for now.  Watch out for the fallacy of Impossible Expectations!  Do feel free to comment on Twitter or Facebook in response to the initial post.




[1] widely reported inc. http://www.politico.com/story/2016/12/trump-team-russia-cia-intel-election-232460

[2] https://mediamatters.org/video/2016/12/14/watch-cnn-anchor-informs-trump-transition-official-climate-change-science-isnt-matter-opinion/214816 (the anchor actually does a reasonable job debating against)