Category Archives: Climate Change

A Hurricane of Paranoia

Is there any end to the flow of paranoid conspiracy theories seeded in the internet ocean? Like hurricanes, they seem to proceed implacably, one after the other. Not only do we have the illuminati, the reptilians, the 9/11 conspiracy theories, and the revival of flat earth beliefs, but more recent theories seem to suggest that almost no action is so bad that it can’t be attributed to the mysterious ‘deep state’. There were some who alleged that the Sandy Hook shootings were a set up, and now – before the hurricane has even struck the coast of Florida, there are those who allege that the hurricane itself is the creation of the all-manipulating authorities. What distresses me about the rising tide of conspiracy theory is the way in which closed loops of confirmation bias are increasingly fed by the ‘echo chamber’ effect of social media, aided by the widespread lack of the kind of critical thinking skills required to challenge them. The effects feed not only disinformation, but quite unnecessary social and political conflict. Just when everyone needs to be on the same side, dealing with enormously traumatic events, they end up undermining the whole basis of experiential judgement on which common humanity could develop. Although as I write, Hurricane Irma has not yet hit Florida, the consequences of a section of the population seriously believing that it’s all been set up by the US government can hardly seem anything but deeply insulting to those who will shortly doubtless risk (and possibly lose) their lives to save others, in the service of the very same public authorities who are being blamed for the disaster by these conspiracy theorists.

In many ways, a conspiracy theory is no different from any other absolute belief. Those in the grip of an absolute belief do not weigh up the evidence and select the most likely explanation for it: rather they select evidence that fits the beliefs that obsessive desire or anxiety are urging on them, and ignore or dismiss all alternatives. In this respect conspiracy theorists are no different from medieval dogmatists – they just have access to better communications technology. They trade on uncertainty, pointing out that there is no way of disproving their belief, but completely ignore that the same point applies to a wide range of other possible competing beliefs that can also not be disproved. Unrealistically expecting disproof, they remain attached to their conspiracy theory in its absence, but can only do so because the comparison of probabilities simply does not figure in their thinking. Any challenge to the theory is likely to be seen as under the deluded spell of the all-powerful conspiracy that otherwise rules the world. By maintaining and spreading such beliefs, too, social capital is earned by gaining prominence in the in-group, whilst to seriously question their basis is to risk that status and thus risk rejection by that group.

Those who attempt to offer ‘facts’ to refute conspiracy theories merely feed them by providing more of the same absolute language. The whole context in which they exist is one of dualistic opposition, so that the direct opposing of one ‘fact’ by another reinforces defensiveness. It is only by becoming reflectively more aware of the limitations of our knowledge, as well as positively confident in justified belief, that we can start to disentangle the kind of thinking that fuels conspiracy theories. By holding off from claims about ‘truth’ and ‘falsehood’, but nevertheless investigating justification, we would be practising the Middle Way.

The belief that Hurricane Irma is created by the US government, like most other conspiracy theories, involves a weight of assumptions that make it vastly improbable when you start to consider those assumptions. The video that I linked above merely argues that there is a record of the US government researching and testing weather manipulation in the past, but gives no evidence at all that weather manipulation on the scale that would be required to either create or stop a hurricane is or ever will be possible. Even if it was, a large number of people would have to be in on the plot, and the government would have to have some kind of motive for doing it (the video falls into its nadir of incoherence when trying to explain why on earth the US government would want to engineer Hurricane Irma). But, of course, mere improbability and weight of assumption does not figure at all for a conspiracy theorist. The shadowy authorities are powerful enough – so they can do anything, it seems.

The role that these shadowy authorities play (the ‘deep state’, the ‘liberal establishment’ and its ‘fake news media’, the Communists, the Reptilians etc.) is very similar to that played by God in medieval times. The vaguer the actor the better, so that any inconvenient new developments can be readily attributed to it . It’s not necessary to offer any allegations about who exactly did what, since a vague suspicion is actually more powerful in inducing this kind of absolute belief. This shadowy authority is also, in Jungian terms, a projected archetype: an open potential that we have for power in ourselves is attributed to something beyond us.

But for those watching the video offering ‘proof’ of such a conspiracy theory, these considerations are unlikely to figure. In order to maintain critical awareness, the alternatives need to be available to you whilst you are watching such a video, or at least immediately afterwards. That for many people they obviously are not seems to be more than anything due to gaping holes in our education systems, which still leave many people without any practice in exercising that critical awareness. All the rest of us can do, I think, is try to support others in thinking things through, whilst trying to avoid simply inducing a dismissive reaction through too direct a challenge. Together with that, we can positively acknowledge the archetypes in us, not out there, and positively investigate the complexity of causation in an event like a hurricane, which may be our fault in some respects (looking at the wider context of climate change) but not in others. As the hurricane heads across the straits, my thoughts are with the people it is about to strike. For their sake, if for nobody else’s, please do not uncritically share conspiracy-mongering!

Picture: Hurricanes Irma and Jose on 6th Sept 2017, NASA (public domain)

Critical Thinking 20: Appeal to consequences

To point out the likely consequences of a course of action usually seems like a helpful thing to do: for example, discouraging your friend from making themselves ill by drinking, or considering how much the recipient will really value the gift you are preparing. However, there are some cases where appealing to a particular consequence is a form of distraction or manipulation. Perhaps the consequence is frightening or flattering, but not nearly as important or probable as it is being presented as being, but because we have had our minds focused on that consequence we miss more important factors. An appeal to consequences needs to be distinguished from merely alerting people to them as possibilities.

I came across a striking example recently in an article about ‘essay mill’ sites where students can pay to have essays written for them. This included the following clip from an essay mill site, in which its authors tried to persuade students of the morality of using it:Buy essays - appeal to consequencesThis is quite cleverly done. The moral idea of cheating is ambiguously conflated with the idea of getting caught, so the unlikelihood of getting caught may well be confused with the justifiability of using the essay mill (even though the very idea of ‘getting caught’ implies cheating!). The student’s likely feelings are then sympathetically anticipated, making it more likely that the student will feel that the author understands their situation and can guide them wisely. But the clinching argument is where the appeal to consequences comes in: “In the long run, your success will be all that matters. Trivial things like ordering an essay will seem too distant to even be considered cheating”.

“Your success will be all that matters” is a matter of the end justifying the means. In order to persuade the student of this, the author invites the student to think ahead to when they’ve got their qualification and succeeded in their goals, and the importance of those goals to them will doubtless outweigh every other consideration. This is an appeal to consequences because it invites us to assume that this consequence is necessarily the one that trumps all other considerations – in this case the normal social and academic rules about cheating. But just because it may contribute to the achievement of a goal that may be of great importance to you does not necessarily mean that this form of cheating is justified.

Another form of appeal to consequence is the type that seeks to persuade people to change beliefs that are justified by evidence because of the political, social, or economic benefits of doing so. Thus, for example, a climate change scientist might be appealed to by a politician or administrator distort their findings to follow an official anti-climate change line, despite the weight of evidence for climate change. At an extreme, this might amount to a form of blackmail (change your beliefs or you might lose your job) or bribery (change your beliefs and you’ll get promoted), which also involves an appeal to consequences. The reason that we should reject such appeals to change our beliefs about the ‘facts’, in my view, is not that the ‘facts’ are incontrovertible or that we do not at some level generally accept certain ‘facts’ because of the pragmatic consequences of doing so, but because from a wider and more integrated perspective the long-term consequences of supporting beliefs that fit the evidence better are far more important than the short-term reasons for rejecting them.

Why should the student resist the temptation to cheat? Not just because there are social rules against cheating, because those social rules are not necessarily correct just because they are social rules. Rather, because a more integrated perspective, in which the student remained fully in touch with a desire for integrity both in their own lives and in the academic system, should motivate the avoidance of cheating. A student tempted to cheat, or a climate change scientist tempted to abandon the integrity of their research for political reasons, might be better able to resist that temptation if they reflected on the situation not as just a conflict between social rules and individual inclination, or even between rival ‘facts’, but rather between different desires that they themselves possess – desires that can only be reconciled by taking the more integral and sustainable path. The alternative is not just a danger of being ‘caught’, but also a danger of long-term guilt and conflict.

The problem with appeals to consequences is thus the narrow absolutisation of the particular consequences that are being appealed to. The Middle Way, which asks us to return to the middle ground between positive and negative types of absolutisation, would point out that neither the social rules against cheating nor the rationalisations we might give for cheating are absolute. By freeing ourselves from both sets of extreme assumption, we are in a better position to make a judgement that is actually based on both evidence and values that are sustainable in the long-term.

 

Link to a list of other posts in the critical thinking series

 

Alexander von Humboldt, synthesist

I’ve recently been reading a very interesting book, ‘The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, The Lost Hero of Science’ by Andrea Wulf, which has made me much more aware of the profound scientific legacy of Humboldt (a figure who seems to be largely forgotten in Anglophone countries). Humboldt (1769-1859) was a towering figure of science, not because he created a massive new theory like Newton or Einstein, but because of the way he linked different spheres of discussion together to recognise new conditions. He can be a new source of inspiration today precisely because science, and indeed the academic world in general, suffers so much from over-specialisation and the narrowing of assumptions that this brings with it.

Humboldt was born into an aristocratic family in Prussia at the time of Prussia’s increasing ascendancy in Germany, but before its unification. Influenced by Goethe and Kant, he treated human understanding as an interconnected whole, developing a concept of nature that recognised all these interconnections at a time when few of them were understood. He was the first to recognise the relationship between animals, plants, geology and climate across the world, and the first to warn of the destructive effects of human activity on the environment, including climate change. He spoke and read four languages fluently and was as equally at home in Paris, London, Washington, or Bogota as he was in Berlin. He travelled to South America and Russia, combining meticulous observation, intrepid exploration, and broad awareness of the relationships between all the phenomena he observed. Back in Paris and Berlin, he wrote books that interwove geology, astronomy, botany, zoology, human geography and politics, describing his experiences with sensitivity and power and illustrating them visually, as well as providing all the data. He spoke to the public and became massively popular, as well as being an inspiration for such varied figures as Thomas Jefferson, Simon Bolivar, Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, George Perkins Marsh, Ernst Haeckel and John Muir. The great strength of Wulf’s book is that she unites an engrossing account of Humboldt’s own life and achievements with one of his influence on all of these figures.humboldt-bonpland_chimborazoHumboldt’s way of doing science united analysis with synthesis in a way that seems to be largely lost today. His general conclusions could be backed up with detailed evidence from observation that was often first-hand, but at the same time he could pan out and make links between diverse fields of study. For example, he noted the effects of the Spanish colonial system on the environment of South America, and the impoverishment of plant and animal life it was already creating in some areas, even whilst abundant life thrived in those less affected by human interference. He also linked human-created deforestation to a feedback loop of climate change, as the lack of trees desiccated a local environment. To make links in this way, across the boundaries of politics, botany, meteorology and geography, is to synthesise, creating new understanding, rather than just to analyse causes and justifications within an accepted field of discourse.

Some of the thinkers I most admire today are synthesisers who have likewise linked together fields that are often falsely separated: Carl Jung, Iain McGilchrist, or Nassim Nicholas Taleb, for instance. But synthetic thinkers today have the odds massively stacked against them, and are typically forced by the academic system to plough a narrow furrow for many years before they can be allowed to synthesise and be taken seriously. ‘The academic system’ here means peer-reviewed journals that take the limited assumptions of a particular specialisation as their sole basis, and expect highly-evidenced work covering a small area that can be fitted into an existing accepted framework of knowledge. Anything in the least synthetic is almost automatically rejected by such journals, and even if they are supposedly inter-disciplinary they are often highly limited in the starting assumptions they will accept. No academic career is possible without the support of these journals, and thus the triumph of analysis over synthesis maintains a stranglehold over the academic world.

But if you read about Humboldt’s scientific world of the early nineteenth century, you find quite a different world. Here a scientist was still largely thought of as an individual thinker and observer rather than someone who had to conform to a massive socially-regulated project. Here synthetic abilities could still be recognised, appreciated and cultivated alongside those of analysis and observation. The scientists were much fewer in number and had much more limited facilities at their disposal, but they still made great breakthroughs, because they were free to reflect on their experience from a variety of perspectives and thus come up with new theories. Humboldt’s recognition of what we now call ecological relationships was a discovery that could hardly be of greater practical importance to us today – probably much greater importance than the relative breakthroughs made today by specialised teams who persist in ploughing a well-ploughed furrow a little bit further.

Of course, it would be easy to idealise that earlier scientific world, and the current one has many other advantages. What seems important to me is not to in any way belittle the efforts of scientists in the current specialised system, but to encourage awareness of the overall limitations of that system and urge it to incorporate more synthesis. It is like a tree that has grown strongly in one direction when the light was available there, but now lacks the flexibility to grow in a new direction when the source of light moves. The scientific system depends on the education system, which gives far too little grounding in philosophical, psychological and emotional awareness which would help people more readily see the limitations of a specialised position. In turn philosophy itself needs root and branch reform, because it has been warped in mistaken imitation of over-specialised science, rather than fulfilling its practical function of a general critical consideration of our widest beliefs and assumptions. Without a recognition of the perspective from which synthesis is so important, we are unlikely to be motivated in changing our institutions to encourage it. Looking back at the strengths of what was done in the past can at least provide a vein of inspiration for that, even if it doesn’t tell us exactly how to act today.

 

Picture: Humboldt and Bonpland by Mount Chimborazo by Friedrich Georg Weitsch (public domain)

There is always hope

In the last few weeks and months, I have sometimes found hope in rather short supply. That’s not particularly due to personal events so much as events in the world at large, particularly those that can be summarised in two evocative words, ‘Brexit’ and ‘Trump’. These are a source of despair primarily because of the bad news they convey about the lack of critical thinking and wider awareness in a large section of the population of the UK and US, together with the apparently disastrous implications of Trump’s election for the already fragile international consensus to act effectively on climate change. Absolutisation appears to rule unchallenged so often in so many minds at crucial times, who are thus paralysed from responding to important conditions by an obsession with straw man targets such as ‘political correctness’, ‘liberal elites’, or the influence of foreign migrants, and apparently animated by an overwhelming nostalgia for past social certainties.

The effects of these obsessions are underlined by George Monbiot in an article called ‘The 13 impossible crises that humanity now faces’, which include not only Trump and climate change, but the possibility of a new financial crisis, the likely collapse of the EU, mass migration, mass unemployment due to automation, a looming food crisis, mass extinctions, (and, added in a comment) antibiotic resistance and the global pensions crisis. To address these kind of conditions, we need every sinew of balanced critical awareness we can gather, yet at the very moment we seem likely to need it most, it seems that the majority of the population is determined to stick its collective head in the sand.

Where is hope at a time like this? Strangely enough, hope always seems to be our default setting, regardless of such bad news. Iain McGilchrist points out that our dominant left hemispheres are subject to a general shallow optimism, ensuring that human beings will always tend to seek a new positive response to their conditions. The shock of bad news is short-lived, and it generally takes us little time before we start seeking alternative positive sides to it. As the Monty Python team memorably sings from their crosses, it’s always possible to ‘look on the bright side of life’.

But is there any justification for this default resurgence of hope? Is it just another aspect of the confirmation bias that makes us so prone to error in the first place? I would argue that there is. There is a shallow source of hope in this default setting, but there is also a deeper source of hope in the wider insights we find whenever we start to move beyond our delusions of the moment. Our embodied nature not only makes us continue to hope, but also helps us respond to frustration by reframing our perspective and gaining a better understanding. Darkness may be followed by a new dawn because, when we are at our most deluded, we are very likely to clash with conditions and be forced towards a more adequate perspective. We will not escape suffering, but we may learn from our suffering. The Middle Way is a way of talking about that capacity for finding new, more adequate perspectives in the face of uncertainty.hope-wojniakowski

Both optimism and pessimism, when adopted as all-encompassing interpretations of the situation, are deluded, and a more adequate position is likely to lie somewhere between them. George Monbiot alerts us to some pressing conditions, but his piece needs to be recognised as a selective interpretation of events. We also have much to be cheerful about. On a personal level, many of us still have enough to eat, comfortable houses, stimulating lives and supportive companions. Worldwide, violence continues to decline (as documented by Steven Pinker); moral attitudes in many countries have transformed so as to respect many groups that were previously oppressed on grounds of race, age, gender, sexuality; human lifespan continues to extend; extreme poverty continues to decline; numbers of people attending school and university worldwide continue to rise. If you raise these points, you may be accused of complacency, just as raising Monbiot’s points may lead to denial or your dismissal as a doom merchant. Nevertheless, questioning both the absolutes of optimism and pessimism remains a crucial aspect of the practice of the Middle Way.

People may associate hope with optimism, but if that optimism is dogmatic or built on little more than our ‘default setting’ it is fragile. A more sustainable hope comes from the Middle Way, because the Middle Way ensures that we are always working towards realism as well as optimism. The best hope is a grounded hope. Rather than being overwhelmed by the perspective of the present, reflection can also help us to take the long view. In the long view, even the impact of Adolf Hitler has eventually faded and been put into perspective, like that of Genghis Khan or the Emperor Nero before him. There is no guarantee that suffering or loss will clear the way for new advances, but mere reflection on the fact that they often do may help us to put things into perspective.

‘There is always hope’ thus seems like a helpful and justified generalisation of human experience. A string of proverbs and truisms (‘Hope springs eternal’ and so on) confirm that it has widely been seen to be so. Our times may be disastrous, but they are still not times for despair.

 

Picture: Allegory of Hope by Wojniakowski

The Fall of Phaethon

I recently came upon this Latin phrase: Medio tutissimus ibis (You will go most safely by the Middle Way), and was intrigued. I looked it up, and found that it came from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Ovid was one of the greatest Roman poets, and his Metamorphoses are treatments of various Classical myths around the theme of transformation. The quotation comes from the story of Phaethon, and it turns out that it has quite a lot of symbolic power as a story about the Middle Way.

The story goes that Phaethon was the unrecognised son on Phoebus (Greek Helios), the sun  god who drove the chariot of the sun across the sky every day. On finding out from his mother that he was the son of Phoebus, Phaethon went to him asking for recognition. Phoebus agreed to grant him any favour he might ask, so Phaethon then demanded to drive the sun chariot across the sky for a day. Phoebus warned him about how difficult this involves. The horses are difficult to control, and you need to follow a middle path to make sure the earth gets the right amount of heat.  Deviating from that middle path could have disastrous consequences. But Phaethon insists. Here is the crucial passage where Phoebus advises Phaethon on his course.

Observe with care that both the earth and sky
have their appropriate heat—Drive not too low,
nor urge the chariot through the highest plane;
for if thy course attain too great a height
thou wilt consume the mansions of the sky,
and if too low the land will scorch with heat.
“Take thou the middle plane, where all is safe;
nor let the Wheel turn over to the right
and bear thee to the twisted Snake! nor let
it take thee to the Altar on the left—
so close to earth—but steer the middle course.—
to Fortune I commit thy fate, whose care
for thee so reckless of thyself I pray.

(Metamorphoses 2:137, trans. More)

It is “take thou the middle plane, where all is safe” that corresponds to the Latin phrase medio tutissimus ibis. There are a number of interesting aspects to this from the standpoint of the symbology of the Middle Way. Firstly, the middle course is three dimensional: not too high or too low as well as not too far to the left or right. Of course, the Middle Way is not any old middle course between any set of conventionally-define extremes, but the extremes given by Ovid seem to be of greater significance than that and to in may ways match up with those avoided by the Middle Way. If we consume the mansions of the sky, this could stand for appropriating the divine or the idea of the perfect and infinite. If on the other hand, we scorch the land, this can stand of absolutizing particular worldly goals and thus allowing our ambitions and ideologies to consume the world. The twisted snake may be associated with Asculapius, the god of medicine who was supposed to have been punished for taking medicine too far and reviving the dead. On the other hand, the Altar obviously has associations with religiosity. So the left and right extremes here could well be understood as standing for scientism on the one hand, which pushes science too far by drawing absolute conclusions from it, and religious absolutism on the other.fall-of-phaethon-carlo-dellorto-ccbysa4-0

Like us, pushed into the world to try to follow a Middle Way, Phaethon is horrifically unprepared. He is a reckless and naïve youth who has neither the skill nor the wisdom to follow that middle course. The results follow in the rest of the story. Phaethon is unable to control the horses, and plunges to earth, where the fire of the sun starts to burn everything up (apparently producing the Sahara desert). The earth appeals desperately to Jupiter, who sends a lightning-bolt which destroys Phaethon and somehow stops the conflagration.

The Fall of Phaethon thus seems to be a potent symbol of the potentially disastrous consequences of veering from the Middle Way. By falling to earth he veers too far off the path downwards, giving way too much to narrow worldly goals and beliefs. The idea that this might destroy the world through heat can be a potent one for us today, given the threat of global warming, one of the effects of which are a greater threat of conflagrations and desertification, both mentioned by Ovid. This threat can be directly linked to our tendency to absolutise our desires.

Links:

Wikipedia on Phaethon

Online translation of Ovid’s metamorphoses

 

Picture: Fall of Phaethon, mural in a Genoese villa, taken by Carlo Dell’Orto CCBYSA 4.0