Your Ignorance

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Image credit: Russian Schoolroom by Norman Rockwell

You may have heard of the Dunning-Kruger Effect: those who are most ignorant on a subject stupidly think themselves the most expert.

For example, someone who works as an administrator in the prison system might say, “I know quite a lot about the problems in our corrective institutions, although I recently read some new research that made me question some of my long-help assumptions.”  The average layman who’s read about prisons in the paper might say, “I’ve heard the gangs run the place and drugs are everywhere.  I shudder to think what else goes on in there.”  Someone who has never read about or even considered the issue before at all will say:

If there is one fault common to all bloggers and their commenters (except you and I), it is that they think they are experts on everything.  Too rarely does somebody say, “I don’t really know much about that.”  But no one can be expert on everything.

[An exception would be Slate Star Codex, yet he manages to come across as more arrogant than anybody.  Why is that?]

We get around the psychological discomfort of uncertainty by adopting our team’s view of the world.

For example, in medieval Europe everyone knew that God made the world in six days, the Catholic Church is his institution on Earth, and that everything in our world is the way it is because God made it that way.  For us.

On the left, everyone knows that Trump is a fascist, public healthcare is the most efficient, and all differences in outcomes between races, sexes, religions and sexualities (etc.) is due to discrimination.

On the traditional right, everyone is sure that Western societies were much better in the 1950s and have been weakened by promiscuity, abortion, divorce and atheism.

And so on.

But you and me – we’re different.  We’re brave enough to point out some areas where we are utterly ignorant, even though our ‘team’ has firm views on them.

Here are a couple of mine:

Health policy

My experience is limited to having lived in various countries and using their systems.

This is what I know: The public health care system in Australia has largely covered some very expensive, life-saving treatments for many people close to me.  The Japanese public system is okay but the doctors sell the medication themselves so they have an obvious incentive to over-prescribe, which they consistently do (especially antibiotics).  The doctors are often arrogant and don’t listen properly to what you say.  Privacy is limited – you don’t always get to close the door before pulling your pants down.  The nurses are tasty.  I have also had broadly positive experiences of other Asian health systems – you can get what you need but have to wade through some baffling bureaucracy.

This is what I don’t know: Are privatized systems really more efficient?  I’ve heard that Singapore and Thailand have pretty sweet set-ups but I don’t know anything about them.  I’ve heard that the US government spends about the same as other developed countries but gets much poorer coverage.  I’ve also heard that the US system incentivizes expensive research into new treatments.  I don’t know the veracity of any of these claims.

Australia’s defense policy

What I know: the main part of our policy is the alliance with the US, which means we slavishly follow their foreign policy no matter how stupid we secretly think it is, in the hope that China and Indonesia will assume the US would back us in a conflict.  Whether the US would actually help would depend on various practical considerations at the time.  A lot of our defense policy focuses on protecting the air-sea gap between us and the rest of the world.  I read an interesting story about how the government found it hard to find a use for Australian forces in the Second Gulf War – most non-SAS ground forces were not equipped for taking on the Iraqis.

What I don’t know: I read that there is no plausible threat to Australia, and that if someone did attack Australia we would not be equipped to defend ourselves independently.  Written in the same sentence by the same author.  If not contradictory, these two facts at least seem to sit uncomfortably next to each other, like two white office workers who don’t know each other finding themselves seated together on the Tokyo subway.

I don’t know whether Australia should have more independent foreign and defense policies, or how much that would cost.  I heard somewhere that it might involve raising spending from around 2% to 4% of GDP.  I don’t know if this figure is accurate.

I have no idea what we ought to spend the money on if we went down that path.  Someone said submarines for asymmetrical warfare against the much larger Chinese military.  Someone said cheaper and more effective Russian planes to replace the apparently useless Joint Strike Fighter, which looks and fights like origami.  Why don’t we just train a local militia with AK-47s and IEDs?  This seems to be the totality of technology possessed by our enemies in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan and is quite sufficient to bog down even the mightiest, well-armed forces in an endless dunny-flush of hard-taxed treasure.  I have no idea about any of these things.  If I were appointed Field Marshal today we’d be speaking Chinese by Thursday afternoon.

What about you?  Anyone out there man enough to admit where your areas of ignorance lurk?  Let us know in the comments.

What is Good?

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Review of On Duties by Marcus Tullius Cicero, translated by Quintus Curtius.

The old windbag Cicero lived during a definitive, pivotal time in Western history – perhaps the moment, along with the American Revolution, that produced our world – but you wouldn’t have wanted to live then unless you have a fondness for starving and being chopped up.  The Roman republic was on the ropes with two cut eyes and early signs of Parkinson’s, and Julius Caesar and others sought to deliver the knockout blow in order to establish a totalitarian empire in its place.  Cicero, a lawyer and famed orator, favored the old republic.  Sometimes exhiled and eventually killed, he is best know today for Read More

The Good Life

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Image credit: Detail from The Death of Seneca by Peter Paul Rubens, 1612-1613.

Review of Letters from a Stoic, by Seneca.  Translated by Richard Mott Gummere.

One can imagine the ancient Greeks, at the second breakfast of human civilization, suddenly having enough agricultural surplus to sit down for a moment and think about things and to record what they thought.  We live, they noticed.  Why?  And, what are we supposed to do now we’re here?  Conquer the world and smite our enemies?  Write the Great Greek Novel?  Honor the Gods?  Life, it seems, comes without even an indecipherable set of IKEA instructions.

The Stoics boldly attempted to write some.  Seneca was Roman but Read More

Mosquito Cosmology

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Late in the quiet of the gecko-roaming hours, a mosquito drones around a motivational poster that says, ‘You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.’   A picture of a basketball hoop.  The mosquito doesn’t know what motivation is.  It doesn’t know what basketball is, or what a game is.  It doesn’t even know what an image is, or a poster, or a word.  Furthermore, it is utterly incapable of ever grasping these concepts or ever coming close to understanding them.  It is a very simple creature.  It is a mosquito.  It bites, it lays, it dies.  That is all.  It can perhaps see the poster just as well as I can but it can not imagine what meaning it possesses.  It can not even wonder.

Outside the air is rich with poor-country foliage and exhaust fumes.  The thin moon makes way for several reluctant stars that peer through the darkened haze.  I peer back.  Those are the stars closest to us, the Solar Neighbourhood.  If you shrank the universe down to a scale where the sun had a diameter of 1cm (394 thou), the nearest stars would be a good day’s drive away.

The Solar Neighbourhood is in the Orion Arm of the Milky Way galaxy.  Our galaxy is part of the local group of galaxies.  Let’s pause here and reflect: scientists have speculated about the means to travel or send probes to nearby stars.  A whole galaxy might perhaps be colonized over millennia.  Sending any object to another galaxy, let alone sending a person, would require scarcely imagined technologies.  Exceedingly advanced civilizations may have risen, flourished, and perished in those nearby galaxies without us ever knowing.  So anyway, those galaxies make up the galaxy cluster, which is part of a supercluster.  The visible universe is a Read More

Morality is for Wimps

Book Review: Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for Everyone and No One (Penguin Classics) by Friedrich Nietzsche.

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Have you ever met one of those blokes? You know the type. You’re in a quiet pub – maybe you’re waiting for the trains to be less crowded, or perhaps you’re an alcoholic. There’s only one drinker there and he says hello. You start talking.

This fellow, there’s usually something silly about his hair. Maybe it’s long and he’s way too old for it. Perhaps a giant beard. But you get talking to him and you find that you’ve discovered a soul mate. One of those very rare people who actually thinks how you think, even those unpopular things that are verboten on both left and right. Indeed, he says those things before you do. There’s no one eavesdropping.  It’s just the two of you. You both chuckle conspiratorially and say, ‘No one else can see it, can they? Normal people don’t want to accept the truth. We’re not normal though, are we? We’re the effing Illuminati, we are. But keep it under your hat, of course. Most people aren’t ready for this stuff and they never will be.’

Actually, I’ve never had an experience like that. I could imagine it happening though. That’s what reading Nietzsche is like. On almost every page I inwardly scream, ‘Of course! That’s right! It’s so bloody obvious but no one dares admit it!’ And yet Read More

Dreaming of Glory

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I read Dostoevsky, Nietzsche and Bertrand Russell.  I listen to ragas.  Kraftwerk.  Rachmaninov.  Watch Casablanca.  I see giant skyscrapers that appear to defy physics.  The space program, the men who boldly went and the closely cropped ones with broad rimmed glasses who got them there and back again.  The pyramids.  Angkor Wat.  Ford and Gates and that blonde fellow.  Sir Walter Raleigh, the superman.  Da Vinci the clever poof.  Socrates who dared to think.  Galileo who dared to look.  Einstein, who saw behind the curtains of our deceptive reality.  Napoleon and Caesar who conquered,  loved and slaughtered.

And who am I?  Bloody Martin Smith from Croydon.  What have I done?  I cut my fingernails so short I can’t even pick my nose.  I’m impressed with myself if I have clean underwear in the drawer, which is not all of the time.  I have travelled no further west than Read More

How Acknowledging Death Can Improve Your Life

My most recent post on Return of Kings:

Life’s only certainty: one day you will die.

It might be this afternoon. It might be a century from now. You might see it coming in the form of a looming bus or you might hear its approach in a doctor’s calmly professional diagnosis. It could strike you from behind like a bullet in back of your head, your last thought being whether you need to get milk on the way home. It might come in your sleep, your morning alarm left unheard and a tab of midget porn left open for your loved ones to find. We’re all moving in different directions but we will all arrive, eventually, at the same destination.

Read the rest at Return of Kings.

Psalm 88

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Lord, you are the God who saves me;
    day and night I cry out to you.
May my prayer come before you;
    turn your ear to my cry.

I am overwhelmed with troubles
    and my life draws near to death.
I am counted among those who go down to the pit;
    I am like one without strength.
I am set apart with the dead,
    like the slain who lie in the grave,
whom you remember no more,
    who are cut off from your care.

Read More

The Mask Slips

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They say if you give a man enough rope, he’ll hang himself.  Let a man speak freely and he will confess all his crimes.

The internet is one, giant coil of rope and anyone who uses it long enough eventually gets tangled up, revealing more than he ought to.  This is certainly true of myself.  It is also true of others.  Read for long enough and the world will unwittingly reveal all its secrets and lies to you, one by one.

First, everyone’s favourite billionaire tyrant George Soros gives the game away on his site Project Syndicate, like a Bond villain outlining his evil plan before leaving the room and allowing our hero to get chopped up by a laser.  His henchman, the presumably steel-toothed Ian Buruma, lets slip that democracy is a bad idea when it allows the election of people his host doesn’t approve of, or the implementation of policies contrary to his goals.

. . . the message of populism is similar everywhere in the democratic world: Liberal elites are to be blamed for all our ills and anxieties, from Europe’s refugee crisis to the inequities of the global economy, from “multiculturalism” to the rise of radical Islam.

I’m no idealist about democracy, even in its liberal form.  I will suggest moderate reforms in a future post.  Those reforms will not, however, include allowing traumatised tycoons to run the show as they see fit.

We all pretend to believe in liberal democracy, but Read More

Why Clever People Are Stupid

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Image liberated from mayaesslemont.files.wordpress.com

Isaac Newton would be considered by most to be a pretty clever bloke.  He did, however, have some strange habits.  He once tried staring at the sun for as long as he could just to see what would happen and spent the next few days in bedridden agony.  On another occasion he stuck a wire between his eyeball and his skull as part of some ill-considered experiment.  Astonishingly, he escaped both incidents without permanent injury.

John Maynard Keyes bought some of Newton’s papers and was shocked to find that, in between founding modern physics and advancing every area of mathematics, Newton had found time to Read More