Climate change, Pascal and belief
I went to an interesting local talk recently about climate change. It was not
so much interesting because it presented a convincing argument. The more
interesting aspect was the use of
fallacy and the
way that the audience reacted.
The presenter took the controversial position of denying climate change,
showing some graphs that suggested that carbon dioxide is a tiny aspect of
atmosphere and the human contribution to it as miniscule. He also suggested that
evidence for climate change was shaky at best. For example noting that, in the
Communist era, Siberian meteorologists got a greater fuel allowance if they
reported that it was cold, which was removed after communism faded -- as a
result the early falsified readings contrasted with the truer later readings
made it seem as if the temperature had increased. Stories such as this are
beautifully convincing, but are full of holes. For example we do not know the
number and duration of reports, nor can we see isolated data to prove the
In the ensuing heated argument, I interjected with the comment that this was
much like Pascal's dilemma. This created a pause, as intended, which gave me
space to explain my odd comment. Pascal was a 17th century French philosopher
whose famous dilemma was about the puzzle whether he should believe in God. If
he believed in God there would be a cost over his lifetime in going to church,
and if God didn’t exist he would have wasted his time. Yet if he did not believe
in God, he would spend an eternity in damnation. Overall, it seemed, it was
safer to believe in God (or at least act as if he did).
The same argument applies to believing in climate change. If I choose to not
believe then I will not act to reduce my carbon dioxide footprint and otherwise
try to save the planet. If climate change is not happening or is not caused by
human activity, then this is not a problem. But if it is, then the result of my
denial could be calamitous. More to the point, if many people act this way, and
especially those in power, then their negative belief could kill us all. So,
like Pascal, it seems a better bet to accept that we should act to reduce our
energy consumption and general carbon production.
So how do we decide what to believe? The first step is about sense. We gather
data and listen to argument and decide whether it seems to make sense, at least
on the face of it. The other factor in deciding whether to believe or not is in
our assessment of those who already believe. On one side of the climate debate
we have a few scientists, a number of politicians and even more business people
who have something to lose if we cracked down on carbon creators. On the other
side are many, many scientists including high-visibility people with a lot to
lose if they are proven wrong.
Hmm. I think I'll side with the 'believe in climate change' people.
Drink and disorderly: the case of the
confusing wine menu
I was at a restaurant last night, looking at the wine menu. It was my wife's
birthday and I got to choose the drink. Like many other people, I didn't want to
spend too much money (very easy with fancy wines) but also wanted to avoid
appearing to be a cheapskate. So I started looking a few bottles down the list,
keeping a health eye on the price.
It was then that I noticed something odd.
Most wine lists are sorted from cheapest to most expensive. I've wondered
about this. If the restaurant owner wants you to buy an expensive wine, wouldn't
it be a better idea to start with the most expensive and gradually get cheaper?
Like a reverse auction, readers go as far as they dare and then stop. Most would
never get to the end and the restaurateur would make more profit. But then some
customers would baulk at the high prices and abandon the wine for something
cheaper. Maybe, even, they would not return to the restaurant.
Another method would be to use a random sorting, so customers would have to
hunt for the cheaper bottles, but this again could cause irritation and
The restaurant I was at did neither of these. Instead, it had the wine list
sorted roughly into price order, from lower to higher, but not strictly
so. Towards the beginning were cheaper bottles, not quite in price order, and
further down were kind of more expensive bottles.
Hmm. I thought. What's going on here? This slight disruption was not enough
to annoy me (not hence make me disloyal), but it did disrupt the 'second or
third in the list' strategy. I ended up being a bit less careful about price and
a bit more attentive to the wine type. Which was probably more profitable for
the restaurant owner.
The wine, by the way, was delicious, and my wife had a very happy birthday.
Tragedy, Opportunity, Privatization and
When New Orleans flooded, economist Milton Friedman declared it a tragedy,
but also an opportunity. Though opportunities for some can lead to problems for
others. Schools, for example, became highly privatised as the government balked
at the cost. Landlords rebuilt high value housing. Those with money made more
The same principle applies widely. Chaos is a gravy train for contractors who
profit from rebuilding and restoration. Have a war; rebuild after the war.
Government contractors benefit from both. Natural disaster; rescue and rebuild.
More profit. Economic collapse; bail out the 'too big to fail' banks and prop up
bonuses. Problems in government policy; call in the consultants to sort out the
mess. Criticize a public broadcaster as biased; cut its headcount and force
outsourcing. Run down a government service; declare it incompetent and further
The list is long and riddled with corruption. Why? Because the separation of
government and private profit is breaking down. When people from industry are
employed in supporting government. When government officials are allowed private
incomes. When those letting contracts are friendly with contractors. These and
more are opportunities for corruption, for secret and even brazenly open
It is human nature to put me and mine above you and yours. We are naturally
selfish, which is a key reason why we need laws and a moral society. Sure, we
can also be altruistic, but when there is a big pile of money on the table in
front of us and we think we will suffer no consequence for picking it up, many
would reach forward and try not to think about where it might come from or where
it might take us. This is the basis of corruption.
And if governments and officials become corrupt, even in small and
understandable ways (and we all excuse ourselves from blame), then society pays
the price. Because the result is trickle up of money to the few and declining
standards for the many.
There are three ways all this could be avoided.
One way of containing all this without swinging to the hard left (which is
still a distinct possibility) is the principle of 'fair profit'. Accept that
governments will employ private contractors, and that private industry needs to
pay both its bills and its shareholders. But constrain the profits that they can
make. Define a 'fair profit' and include it in the contract. Then require full
financial transparency that prevents creative accounting.
The second lock against corruption would be to prevent those in public
service from ever gaining personal profit out of their work. Again, this would
need transparency and due scrutiny. This is not a new idea. Plato identified
'philosopher kings' as an ideal governing system, where officials were paid
modestly and forbidden from gain.
A third leg is leadership and culture. There are many public servants who
still believe in public service, but when whistleblowers risk their futures and
power is casually abused, keeping your job means keeping your head down. An
honest, caring culture starts from the top, where leaders set the example and do
not tolerate corruption of any kind.
Will this happen? It seems unlikely, because it would require that
governments restrict their personal income and turkeys tend not to vote for
Christmas. Yet a continued swing towards elitism, privatization and 'fat cats'
will leave increasingly more in the dirt. And when people feel they have nothing
to lose, they take radical action. Trump is a step on this route, voted in as a
populist rescuer. When he fails, the replacement may be more radical and more
Until eventually what? New politics? Revolution? I guess we'll see.
Capitalist Carpe Diem: Hedonism and Despair in
the Modern World
Do it now, say the adverts. Buy it now. We live in a capitalist culture that
thrives on accelerating spend, where having drives status and dreams are sold on
shelves, online and on every possible occasion. We live in an apocalypically
intense time, where pleasure looms large. And so also does threat, as danger and
death are shockingly peddled by monetized pages in our clutching hands.
Experience it now, say the young Millennials. Let us drink and be merry for
tomorrow is hopeless. We will have no houses, no pension. Our Boomer parents
have broken the world so let's have fun while we can. We work for it, though.
Oh, how we work for our perfect careers that never happens. We were told we were
wonderful and would have it all, but why is it so hard?
Ski, reply the Boomers. Spend the Kids' Inheritance. Vacation, cruise, again
and again. We've worked hard all our lives, for what? Our profligate kids? We've
given them our all, so now it's our turn. We silver surfers, we band of Peter
Pans. We stave off age until decrepitude forces lavish care upon us, lapping up
the last of our fortunes.
Or else we Boomed but never shone as jobs slipped through our fingers, as
technology, elites and migrants stole our futures. We have struggled too, and
every day we seize what we can, as our broken dreams fuel impotent fury. Why us,
we silently cry. Who will save those left desperately clinging on?
Seize the voting slip, say the populists. We understand your woes. We name
the elephant in the room. We will fix the unfixable. We will borrow, build,
bring back jobs and make those who are not like us pay and pay, or else we will
send them away. Listen blindly to our trumpeting platitudes. Vote, not really
for change, but for numbing your existential agonies.
Oh Ozymandias, do not weep. No matter who you are, Utopia beckons, today.
Just grab the promise and forget the cost. You may be lost, but all is not so.
Close your eyes and believe, as hard as you can. You are not to blame -- they
are, so take glorious vengeance in the moment. Eat, drink and fake merriment,
for tomorrow is unthinkable.
Transitions, Celebrations and Marking Boundaries
Why do we celebrate birthdays? Why do we need marriage ceremonies and
funerals? Why do we riddle our lives with such rituals? It's because life is not linear. It is not a continuum. It goes in fits,
starts and stages. And we need something to mark the edges.
When we gaze out at the world, all we really see is a mass of different
optical waves, of which we can detect frequencies and amplitude over a fairly
limited range. However, this is enough for us to see one another and all the
many things around us. It seems instantaneous, but our brains work really hard
and in real time to turn that river of hues into things we can name, recognize
and react to. Without going too deeply into the neuroscience of perception, one
of the most important parts of this process is in separating one thing from
another, and to do this, we seek contrast, then line and outline, from which we
can recognize and name all the different things.
Edges count. Without boundaries, things would merge into one another, making
them difficult to distinguish. Animals use this when their mottled feathers and
hair merge into the background and break up their outline so predators cannot
see them so easily.
We use this principle in our lives, too. We like to separate out different
periods and events so we can name them and hence give them separate meaning. We
talk about our school years, friendships, jobs, weekends, festivals and more.
For ideas, concepts and experiences to exist as meaningful entities, we have to
name them, which means separating them, which means knowing their boundaries,
which typically means recognizing when they start and end. It is for this
purpose we mark our lives' boundaries with celebrations and other events.
Events can be small, such as completing a task. They can be large, such as
getting married. And a way we recognize these is in the size and elaboration of
our markers. We punch the air when we solve a problem. We dress up, recite
sacred words and eat with friends and family when we marry. However we do it,
markers help us transition to new realities. They enable us to say 'The past was
good, but it is gone. I must now move on to the new future.' Facing new times
can be scary when the competencies and resources that enabled us to succeed in
the past may not be as useful as they once were. When jobs change and friends
leave, we may fear the strangeness of the new and hark back to the safety of the
past. Celebrations help us let go and move on, looking forward with more
confidence rather than backwards with regret.
Psychologists talk about the way we go through stable periods punctuated by
unstable transitions as
and note how difficulty in these periods of change can result in us getting
stuck in a younger stage, which is sometimes called 'arrested development'. This
is effect can also be seen in the
Grief Cycle, a principle that has been taken up in business where changes
are recognized as causing a similar staged transition, and where consultants may
act to help people through these, much as psychotherapists help people unstick
themselves from childhood stages. When we pay attention to marking transitions
and using deliberate celebration, we may be saving ourselves from a later date
on the therapist's couch!
How and when we celebrate also depends on who we are. Extraverts, for
example, will enjoy a good party, while introverts might be happier to just have
dinner with a few good friends. Americans often like grand statements while New
Zealanders prefer understatement. A person in one company culture will
appreciate a pat on the back for a job well done, while a person in another will
expect a big financial bonus and public recognition. Older people, used to long
periods of stability, may be accustomed to few transitions and hence big
celebrations, while younger people who know little but change, celebrate each
weekend, perhaps offering silent prayers of thanks that they are still here and
their heads are largely above the rising financial waters.
One of the key concerns that we often have when recognized is what others
might think of us. It is not uncommon for those who are not the focus of
celebrations to feel rather envious, that they are equally deserving and perhaps
more so. Even as they smile and applaud us, we may worry that they are secretly
hating us. Such fears can drain the pleasure from being the focus of attention
and reward, especially in egalitarian cultures where equality is desirable and
standing out is not.
If you think somebody has done a good job and want help them celebrate,
rather than throwing them a party, first stand in their shoes. Do they see their
work as something significant? Do they expect a celebration? Do they expect
little but would appreciate some public recognition? First, know the culture and
know the person. If the culture permits celebration, know its limits, where
pleasure would turn to disgust. If the person would appreciate recognition, even
if they act modestly, then understand what recognition they would appreciate and
feel is appropriate, and how others would see this. Only then move to the
planning. Decide whether it should be a surprise or known, large or small,
public or private. The bigger the recognition event, the more time and resource
you will need, so make sure you have the funds before throwing a big party.
And after it all, you may want a little celebration yourself. Indeed, failing
to celebrate can bring unbounded confusion to our lives. It is also good to help
others mark the transitions in their lives, but this can be hard work. Yet we do
it because the greatest pleasure for many of us is to see those we feel deserve
recognition get it, and to help those who need to move on to do this through
recognition and marking of change.
How much evidence do you need? How do I know I am
a nice person?
We all need to think we are good people. Even criminals self-justify by
blaming their victims or believing themselves more deserving. But how much
evidence do we need? There is a whole spectrum of evidence requirement, although
perhaps we tend to cluster towards one or another end.
The exception that proves the rule
One way of seeking proof is to find just one bit of evidence. For example all
I need is to think about is one time I have been nice to someone, from which I
can conclude that I am a nice person. This is a strategy used by people who are
often unkind to others, but have a small circle of friends. In a position of
authority they are likely to have favorites, who are typically harmless people
who do as they are told.
This is of course a very unscientific method, where repeatable evidence is
needed for a conclusive proof. Yet many of us are affected by 'confirmation
bias' whereby we seek any evidence and quickly conclude our case is proven. This
happens in decision-making too, where we make a decision and then seek evidence
that justifies what we have already decided.
The reverse way of seeking evidence is also to depend on a single piece of
data, but now it is in the reverse sense. Now, all you need is a single piece of
evidence to disprove the rule. In the niceness stakes, this means that if you
are nasty to just one person, you are a nasty person, so you try to be nice to
In science, Karl Popper defined this as falsification. For centuries, the
approach to science was to find 'enough' confirming evidence and then declaring
a general rule. The dilemma is that you cannot find evidence to prove very case,
so you just accept a common-sense body of confirming evidence. Popper got around
this by suggesting a double negative, whereby if you can devise a clever
experiment in which you aim to disprove the rule then one piece of evidence is
enough to prove that the opposite is true. Yes, it's tricky. The 'nice guy'
check would be to look for evidence that a person is nasty, and that not finding
this shows them to be nice.
Few of us are saints, and few are bad sinners either. We're not perfect, but
we try to be nice, which is what we want to think of ourselves. It is also what
we want others to think of us. So we are nasty only occasionally and mostly when
we can justify our unpleasantness.
The Psychology of Trump: Three surprising
preferences that drive how he behaves
Much has been written about the bizarre actions of President Donald Trump.
Psychiatrists, psychologists and pundits have analyzed his machinations and have
diagnosed dire mental conditions, yet it seem three preferences he has around
particular groups of people go a long way to explaining his actions.
Media and the masses, attention and approval
By and large, the media aim to play the role of representing the wider world.
They espouse common values. They alternatively admire and challenge the rich and
powerful. And, with shock, awe and information, they entertain the masses, which
is something Trump understands well.
And Trump has masses of supporters who lap up his vicious invective. He has
given voice to their angry lives and hope to their desperate survival. He feeds
their deep conspiracy theories and promises them all the American dream that few
could ever find. And in return they blindly believe.
Trump plays this instrument endlessly and effectively, feeding them all
shocking statement after shocking statement. The media love this game too, as
shock is always good for sales.
The paradox here is that very few people would do such things, as much
because of the disapproval they would garner as anything. Just the thought of
criticism is enough to keep most of us in line. But Trump is not like this. He
craves attention far more than approval, and so continues to say outrageous
Another reason Trump cares little for approval is his big boss past. People
in power have little to fear from those beneath them and can break social values
with impunity. Indeed, such acts are power signals that send a clear message.
Pay attention, they say, I could hurt you and get away with it. I am above the
News has a short half-life and attention flows similarly. Shocking news gains
more momentum, yet it too fades. Trump hence keeps up a steady stream of
invective, ably supported and reported by the parasitic media. He then drinks
from this hose of attention, pumping disapproval to prolong the feast.
Friends and colleagues, loyalty and truth
When it comes to friends, Trump plays a different game, and again an
unconventional one. Most of us like friends for who they are. We trust them to
keep our interests at heart and accept them as they are, warts and all.
By some accounts, Trump makes a good friend, at least in supporting those in
need. However, he sees this as a transaction and expects absolute loyalty in
return. There are dire stories of his delight in vengeance against those who
have betrayed him, again as a symbol of power and signal to other would-be
traitors. He also plays this as a game, promising desired things in return for
the promise of fealty, as can be seen in his reference to FBI Director Comey
keeping his job shortly before asking for his personal loyalty.
One of the important roles a friend plays is as trusted confidante to whom we
can expose our true selves and who will tell us the truth, even if is difficult
to hear. Trust is important here on both sides, first that the teller of bad
news will not take advantage, and then that the receiver will not take it badly
or lash out.
The same principle applies for people with whom he works. He expects blind
loyalty in exchange for keeping their jobs. This can be a problem when
professionalism dictates truth that is inconvenient for Trump. He is accustomed
to dictating what is and what is not as a matter of convenience, and woe betide
anyone who contradicts him. Already it seems, his staff avoid giving him news
that could trigger an outburst.
Before becoming president he invested a lot in befriending many in the media,
yet who now are being critical. Rather than taking such comment seriously, he
becomes enraged at this disloyalty and seeks harsh punishment. He also uses such
cases as food for his Twitter outbursts that feed his attentional needs.
Family, obedience and love
A final category is his family. You cannot sack your family -- anyway, they
carry your all-important name into the future. So you have to treat them
The classic position of the alpha male that Trump takes is of control. Little
of import happens in his companies without his approval, even though his family
members are running them, and it is probably the same at home. Unquestioning
obedience is the name of this game.
The paradox here is that obedience is even more important than love. Sure, he
likes adulation, but control is so important for him that the semblance of
affection is sufficient. You don't have to love him, but you probably do have to
say you love him, even though everybody knows it's a sham.
A question here is whether these who cannot escape might yet betray him the
worst. Starved of love and under the thumb, they may react and rebel, biting the
hand that feeds them in ultimate revenge for years of micromanagement.
There is the red thread running through all this. Attention, loyalty and
obedience are about how people behave, not how they think or feel. Trump
cares not what you think or feel, only what you do and only for him. He seems to
lack any empathy, which is a deep problem for someone who purports to
leadership, though perhaps is a strength for would-be autocrats. And so, in his
fantastic universe, he is the puppeteer and people dance. They pay attention.
They are loyal. They obey. And heaven help those who dare to disobey, be
disloyal or look away. For this god is a terrible god. His power and his glory
know no end.
How do you pay for your life? The shift to loans,
information, donations and subscriptions
How do you pay for things in your life? The old model was a simple
transaction. You went to the store and paid money for your food. This still
works. But more models have appeared and still appearing and shifting dominance.
You may also have loans. If you have a house then you probably had to borrow
money to buy it. Maybe the same for your car. Perhaps you are a victim of
short-term, high-interest loan sharks, these days sometimes legitimized with the
name of 'Payday loans'. Increasingly, we are paying for today with our futures.
Young people in particular are affected who realize that they may never be
able to retire and who do not have the secure pension safety net of their
parents. This is perhaps something that is driving the hedonistic 'experience
economy' where the young live for today and ignore the cost of the future. Older
folks are not escaping either, with a combination of the enhanced 'Bank of Mom
and Dad' and the cruise culture draining those of us who are torn between
helping their children and spending something of their final years seeing the
world after so long at the coalface.
Payment gets even more interesting when it moves online. How do you pay for
your online consumption? Facebook and Google take payment in information about
you, which they use to micro-segment and sell you things in remarkably
persuasive ways based on a deep analysis of your character.
Websites also, are feeling the pinch. The heady days of the early internet
where everything was free are sharply narrowing. One way they are coping is by
asking for donations. Adverts on many websites, including this one, help pay for
the site. However, ad-block software will stop these. But I can detect this, so
put a 'please donate' request up when ads are not allowed. And some kind people
have donated (thanks!!). Donations are also being sought in a kind of 'telethon'
style, such as the big requests that Wikipedia put out from time to time, with a
persuasive 'personal appeal' from founder Jimmy Wales.
Other places are moving to flat subscriptions where you can avoid large
up-front payments but have to pay on a regular basis. Adobe now do this, as does
Microsoft in Office 365. Variations this appear in other areas, such as the 'freemium'
service, where the basic product is free and desirable premium extras cost you.
An example of this is in podcasts where I recently listened to Sam Harris
pontificating about this.
Look out for the web payment model to continue to change. The principle of
Net Neutrality is being challenged again. Websites are looking more and more to
monetization. They are getting less generous and more cynical, which I have seen
in the decline of guest articles. I do get offered thinly-veiled and
content-weak advertising articles, but I turn these down on a daily basis.
So what will I do at Changing Minds? How will access to the site change in
the future? I have no great plans to change it. I am retired, and should have
about 20 years or so of writing left in me. I've a modest pension and income
from adverts and books are very welcome. I started the site on a premise of
making it all free, so I've no plans for subscriptions. I may experiment with
advertising, but do not want to over-do this. I may extend the donation model,
but I won't be over-pleading as I know that too much guilt-induction makes
people give up and go away. I also don't use information about people, as again
I realize that privacy is a critical personal issue. Also don't worry about the
site continuing: my daughter also has a M.Sc. in Psychology and will likely pick
up the site when I'm pushing up daisies.
For more, see the ChangingMinds Blog! Archive or
the Blogs by subject. To comment on
any blog, click on the blog either in the archive or in the column to the right.