Sunday, July 28, 2013

A lot of people are missing something wonderful.

Great minds discuss ideas; 
average minds discuss events; 
small minds discuss people.
 
Often attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt amongst many others, this is not something I regard as a truism. At different times of the day, we all spend time discussing people and events. It's the discussion of ideas though that brings me the greatest pleasure. With a few (treasured) exceptions, there are sod all people I spend much time discussing ideas with, at least in person. So much of of the discussion of ideas that I engage in, actively or passively, is via the written word.

There has been an idea floating around, for quite a long time now, that there is essentially a binary choice that people make between science vs culture.  It has seen a little light recently with a noted tech writer, one Virginia Heffernan, writing an essay on why she is a creationist. The whole argument boils down to "I like the stories better". This is someone consciously making a choice between science and culture. Strangely enough, whilst fully embracing the technological fruits of scientific endeavors. Making a choice that doesn't need to be made. The idea that science detracts from the sense of wonder we get from the stories that weave in and out of our various cultural practices is not only asinine, it's abhorrent. Science and the stories it tells continually allow us to understand more than we currently know. For every part of our culture that science forces us to re-examine, it opens up a dozen new avenues of inquiry - new ways of looking at the world, new levels of understanding. There are parts of the world where it doesn't make sense to apply the scientific method. Annalee Newitz gives the example of a painting. You can't ascertain whether a painting is true or false, it's a nonsensical question, a category error. There are some things that are currently well beyond our abilities and understanding such as why some people prefer blue to green. And then there is the rest of this vast, magnificent world - a world which on some levels, we know quite a lot about, but on others we are only just beginning to understand how little we know.

Evolution being the example that springs to my mind first. We know it happens and a lot about the mechanisms involved, but it's only in recent years we have come to understand exactly how complex the structures the evolution has built are. It has forced us to re-examine ourselves and our place in universe. Those who either have not taken the time or fear to understand it cling to old beliefs and bemoan the destruction of their stories, proclaiming to be soulless and bleak. And the miss out on a glimpse of how wonderful and complex life is and how appreciative we should be to be able to at least attempt to figure out how it all works.

The sifting of ideas, the sorting of the wheat from the chaff is, I think, one of the greatest pleasures in life. The realization that something you hadn't thought about and taken for granted has some fairly shoddy underpinnings and requires some examination which might very well influence how you live your life is an opportunity to change and move towards becoming the person you want to be. Even better is when an idea that you have thought about is attacked and withstands that attack. Often nothing comes of this, occasionally though you see your beliefs is a slightly different light and you can see why they hold true.

I understand that large numbers of people can't be bothered spending the time and effort to investigate the world around them, the work that people do to figure out the world and the various opinions that are developed as a result of that work. I don't think I will ever understand why they aren't excited though. And I think it's sad that they are missing out on the stories the world has to offer. I'll give the final word to Annalee Newitz though:
"What's infuriating is when we're presented with a false binary like science vs. culture and are forced to choose a side. If you want to find me, I'll be on the side of the people who are deconstructing the cultural binary and building a better world out of atoms."

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The duties of the 4th estate

The press like to tell us sometimes about how they are doing an important, necessary job - communicating the truth to the wider public. It is, I think, one of the reasons that you want a free press, so that you can have an informed citizenry, which is essential to a well run democracy. The press will, of occasion, descend into scandal and hyperbole, but the essential goal, so we are told is to deliver the truth.

Whose fault then is it, I wonder, when the public are not aware of the actual state of their nation? Admittedly the numbers that that article talks about are for Britain. Which is not surprising, given that it's in the Guardian. I wouldn't be surprised though to learn of similar misapprehensions occurring here in New Zealand. 

If the information is available, the most likely cause for the public's ignorance that I can think of is that there is a problem with the communication. And it is the press that is doing the communication. The press are the ones bringing us the news of crime, immigration and taxes. If what is real is  significantly different from the public understands the case to be then the conclusion that I am forced to draw is that the press isn't doing a particularly good job at presenting the truth.