Thursday, 12 May 2016

Business as Usual, Crunchiness and Woo, Part 1

I do mean something by that rather oddball title, something quite specific. Which I will explain, eventually. And be aware that the conclusion I reach at the end is not what it's going to seem like I am leading up to, so hang in there. This started out as a single post of over 6000 words, enough to try the patience of even my most loyal readers, so I've divided it into 3 parts, which will appear over the next few weeks.

Much of what I have been talking about on this blog for the last four years has been the damage being caused by our growth and consumer based industrial society (Business as Usual, BAU) and what can be done to cope with it and oppose it. The people who are working on that opposition are what I would call "Crunchy". I intend to cast a wide net when I speak of "Crunchies". Some people when asked to define "Crunchy" will say, "ah, they're just dirty hippies." While I do mean to include hippies (washed and unwashed) in my definition, I mean to include a whole lot of other people as well.

So it would seem that BAU and Crunchiness are two opposing ideologies. Of course, whenever you see binary thinking like this, framing a situation in terms of two opposing sides, you can bet that someone is benefitting from the conflict and is doing everything he can to keep it going. Examples from the industrial workplace, where I spent most of my life, would be management encouraging disputes among factions within the workforce to distract the workers from whatever management is up to, or during contract negotiations when both management negotiators and union negotiators emphasize differences between workers and management, making it more difficult to come to an agreement. In both bases, this is to the detriment of both workers and stock holders, but to benefit of management and the negotiators.

In the case of BAU versus Crunchiness, many of the leaders on both sides benefit from maintaining the conflict, in that it keeps our attention focused away from what might be done to actually change human society into something more sustainable and render that leadership redundant. And almost no one involved, at any level, really wants to make any of the major changes in lifestyle that would be necessary. We have been convinced that such changes would make life "no longer worth living".

That's nonsense, of course, but it is typical of the kind of nonsense that supports such binary thinking. Along with it comes quite a bit of "woo" (magical thinking and pseudoscience), as well as considerable doubt and confusion and some outright lies, all necessary to paper over the holes in the two positions, to avoid admitting there might be some common ground between the two, or a third approach that might work even better.

There is usually a lot to be gained by abandoning the binary thinking and looking past the woo to see what's really behind it all and that is what I hope to do in this series of posts. Originally, I was going to call this post "Save us from the flakes" and talk mainly about the unfortunate flakiness of Crunchy people. But then I was reminded that Business as Usual people are pretty flaky too, just sneakier about it. And of course, as always when one strays into binary thinking, it is important to remember there are many different types of BAU people and many different types of Crunchies. And all of these people are a mixture of various quantities of sound thinking and flakiness. Sorry if this seems complex, but that's the world I live in—nothing here is simple.

I'm using the word "flake" here in the sense of someone who is so fixated on his ideology (his side of the argument) that he will embrace any sort of magical thinking or pseudoscience that seems to support it, regardless of how irrational that may be. Such people end up believing in some very strange stuff. Of course, we are living in a very strange world where much of this stuff is widely accepted.

The Urban Dictionary defines "flake" as someone who is an unreliable person; someone who agrees to do something, but never follows through. That is not the sense that I am using here, but it has been my experience that many who are flakey in the ideological sense are so far out of touch with reality that they are pretty unreliable as well.

I like to think of myself as "Crunchy without the Woo." Many of you will ask, "Is there anything left when you take out the woo?" Others will be concerned that I not come down too hard on their favourite brand of woo. Some (the honest ones) will do both. Anyway, I do think it is not just possible, but necessary, to be Crunchy but without the woo.

Fence sitting is part of my nature—I seem to be pretty good at seeing the pros and cons of both sides of a thing, and I always suspect that there are only two sides to a thing because someone wants it to be seen that way. If anyone who worked for me at Hydro One is reading this they will be chuckling at the moment. I got this way by spending time on both sides of a number of situations, becoming unsatisfied with first one side and then the other, and finally looking for other ways of seeing the situation. There are usually many other ways, and some of them are more accurate and more useful.

I've been lied to on occasion and frequently led astray by genuinely deluded people. As a result of this, I began to question how anyone knows anything for sure. Accepting what the supposed authorities tell you certainly doesn't work. I finally concluded that the scientific method is the best tool we have at present for finding out the facts about the material world.

Here are some links to several good introductions to the scientific method:

What makes this method unique is that it calls for actually testing the ideas we have about the material world, to see if they are supported by the evidence or not, and changing those ideas if the evidence doesn't support them Then it calls for sharing your ideas and the evidence for them with others who will criticize your reasoning, the tests you did and your interpretation of the results and then try to duplicate your tests and see if they can get the same results. Over time this eliminates the sort of bias and fallacies that seem to be built into human thinking, and leads to a body of knowledge that might be called scientific facts, and a set of theories explaining those facts.

I am not suggesting that we should all become scientists, but rather that when a question is raised, we should make ourselves aware of what science sees as the facts in that field of endeavour and base our opinions on this scientific consensus. Here is some links on what the scientific consensus is and why we can trust it:

Of course, scientific knowledge is always provisional in nature, subject to revision as more evidence, and better understandings of it, become available. And we may find that science, especially out at the edges, doesn't have definite answers for us as yet. But the bottom line about science is that it works and you can rely on it. There is a lot of controversy going around these days on subjects where the science is already quite clear. Don't be fooled by this, by people who push pseudoscience to support their ideologies. Have a look at these links and see what I mean:

Many people say they are looking for absolute truth and can't believe in something like science that may change or be proven wrong. For me that is the great advantage of science—being able to adapt as we learn more, which we always do. Anyway, it's not about "belief". For me belief is a last resort to turn to when the currently known facts and the best available explanations of them don't yet answer your questions. And the best thing to do in those situations is not to pick a position and just believe in it, but simply to admit that you don't know, and then keep looking for real answers.

Some people object that science only applies to the material world and can only decide upon testable or falsifiable points. What about things outside the material world? Or that are not testable? Well, I've tried religion (more than once) and my eventual conclusion was that the material world is all there is, propositions that aren't testable are just nonsense and anyone making absolute, final statements about anything is not to be trusted. My statements here are not intended to be absolute— they are subject to modification should evidence to the contrary be found.

Here's a quote from the notable skeptic Michael Shermer that nicely sums up my thinking on the natural versus supernatural worlds: "If one were to argue that God exists outside of our world (or outside of the universe, or outside of nature), and that God’s forces are non-natural (or supernatural) and they can still affect the world but in a non-measurable way (because our scientific nets only catch natural fish), then what’s the difference between an invisible God and a nonexistent God?"

"Thus, it seems to me that once we have carefully defined our terms, it is clear that there really is only the material world, methodological naturalism is the only means to understand it, and science is the only form of reliable knowledge that we have."

Along with the scientific method, a few additional tools are helpful. Although the argument could be made that they are really integral parts of the scientific method....

Literacy is probably the first to consider. There is all kinds of good information out there in books and on the internet, and there is no point in reinventing the wheel. But of course there is also a great deal of nonsense, "woo" if you will, out there as well and you have to learn to sort it out from the good stuff. Because science has a well deserved reputation as a reliable source of knowledge, those who are pushing woo try to make their case sound as scientific as possible. Thus the term "pseudoscience".

Fortunately, there is also a good deal of information, written at a level suitable for the layman, which will help you sort out the science from the woo.

Numeracy is the next tool I would recommend. Math education is so bad in North American schools that people end up asking why they even bother to learn something they will never use. If you learn it badly (or not at all), then of course you won't use it. But a good grasp of high school level math (and even a bit of calculus), along with a good solid gut feeling for how numbers work in the real world is, in my experience, an important life skill—something you will use on a daily basis and which will give you a leg up on those around you, to whom numbers are probably a bit of a mystery. Numeracy is a great help in detecting woo, because the purveyors of woo tend to have a very weak grasp of numbers. This becomes obvious when they try to use numbers to pull the wool over the eyes of the defenseless public, and end up spouting numerical nonsense. It helps, of course, to be able to recognize numerical nonsense when you see it.

One of the reasons that science has done so well in the last few centuries is its use of numbers and the invention of tools which enable us to measure the world around us and express our knowledge about it in numerical terms.

Critical thinking is the next logical step after numeracy. Basically this means becoming familiar with the many biases and logical fallacies that human beings fall prey to, so that you can you can recognize when others are doing so and, perhaps more importantly, prevent yourself from doing so.

Which brings us to skepticism, which is characterized by a questioning attitude towards opinions or beliefs that others state as facts. Simply put, it is based on the idea that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. Being familiar with the scientific consensus will help you recognize when someone is making an extraordinary claim. Of course a good skeptic has the scientific method, literacy, numeracy and critical thinking skills in his tool box. For more information check out these links:

I strive to be a good skeptic, but occasionally I stumble and I'm always questioning myself, concerned that I have been taken in by some sort of woo.

This may all seem rather academic. But what I think we should be aiming for here is a good practical understanding of how the natural world works, and where we fit into it. So many of us today live in cities and have very little exposure to anything but a human built environment. This leads to some inaccurate impressions about man's place in the world, and also about the workings of real world (nature) itself.

These ideas run along a spectrum. At one end are those who feel that nature is something to be mastered, conquered and risen above. Part of this is a fear of nature and a conceit that we can render ourselves independent of it. At the other end are those who personify nature, seeing "her" as a benevolent mother, and equating her with all that is good, trusting that by doing things the "natural way", we can live in harmony and prosperity.

Neither of these extremes is a very realistic. We are definitely part of the natural world and completely dependent on it for our survival. We are no different than any other species in that we are not exempt from the rules of ecology and population dynamics (or any other natural law). Nature can be as harsh or gentle as the realities of the situation dictates, but to personify nature, to say that it is either hostile or loving to mankind is to have missed the whole point—which is that nature is not an entity with feelings. As far as the "natural way" of doing things, for humans there hasn't been such a thing since we started taming fire and using tools, 2 to 3 million years ago.

As it happens, those two extreme ways of looking at nature line up rather well with BAU and Crunchiness in its more flakey incarnations. In my next two posts I'll be taking a closer look at both those positions, and using the thinking tools I've been talking about, I'll try to sort the good sense out from the woo.

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