Dan’s Notes

This is a section for stray thoughts, comments, observations, answers to readers' questions, whatever. Consider it a blog without the obligation to post five times a day. For those who want more, please take note of the little blue bird below: one click and you, too, can be subjected to an incessant barrage of Gardnerian thoughtlets.

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Comedians With Balls of Crystal

Monday, 07 February 2011 14:36

After I published this dazzling example of a humourist whose jokes accidentally predicted the future, a reader told me that in 1968 and 1969, in a recurring Laugh-In feature called "News of the Future," Dan Rowan and Dick Martin correctly predicted both the Reagan presidency and the fall of the Berlin Wall. They were even frighteningly accurate on the timing.

Intrigued, I asked for a link. And thanks be to YouTube and Yahweh, she delivered. (Start at 1:06... unless you want to watch Goldie Hawn giggling like she's been taking bong hits.)

Intelligent, Informed And Utterly Deluded

Friday, 17 December 2010 08:34

This is a 1970s-era British anti-smoking film. Fascinating throughout. But fast forward to 4:31 to see an interview with a vice president of tobacco giant Philip Morris.

If you believed smoking kills, the interviewer asks him, would you keep selling cigarettes?

The executive's answer is a vivid illustration of how self-interest and commitment to a belief can delude people. And how neither intelligence nor knowledge are enough to defend against delusion. After all, this is clearly an intelligent man who, as he says, has probably read more of the evidence than those silly scientists who think smoking kills.

What does act as a defence against delusion is psychological awareness: an appreciation of one's own biases and how they can skew perceptions and conclusions. This man is oblivious to his biases. And so, as he proudly notes, he is so convinced smoking is harmless he permits his children to smoke. Very sad.

Against false dichotomies

Monday, 06 December 2010 19:26

I published the following column on September 27, 2001. I thought of it again this week, as the angry rhetoric about Julian Assange and Wikileaks spiralled out of control and we were invited to choose sides: Are you for or against Wikileaks? Is Assange a hero or a villain? Sorry, I refuse. Reality is complex. If we honestly and thoughtfully grapple with it, our answers will be, too.

Ottawa Citizen, September 27, 2010:

As a model of writerly grace under pressure, one can do no better than the opening sentence of George Orwell's 1941 essay, England Your England: "As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me."

Orwell's civilized killers were the pilots and bombardiers of the German military, a force then rolling from victory to victory. France had fallen. Britain was alone. All reasonable grounds for hope had been demolished. Liberal democracy would surely die and Nazism would rule, as Hitler predicted, for a thousand years.

Now that was a crisis.

I've no wish to belittle the storm which set upon us on Sept. 11, but it is surely true that the sky is not so dark as that in which Orwell's would-be killers flew. It may become so, but it is not now.

And yet, how different are the tone and character of George Orwell's little essay and so much of the bitter debate that has sprung up from the rubble of Sept. 11.

As Leonard Stern wrote in the Citizen this weekend, people are "splitting into two camps: Those for whom the attack is an unqualified act of evil and, in the minority, those who talk about 'root causes' and 'legitimate grievances' that supposedly fuel anti-West sentiment."

When George Bush declared "either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists," he meant it as a challenge to foreign governments but it also expresses a much less reasonable, and depressingly common, attitude among commentators. You must choose a side, this thinking goes. Are you for us or against us? Which will it be: America the righteous victim or America the bully with a bloodied nose?

Those camped on the right wrap themselves in Old Glory and wax poetic about the magnificence of western civilization. The attack was evil. It must never happen again. The West must draw its terrible, swift sword, they say.

And that's all they say. Any other thought or question is unwelcome, obtuse and, as one pundit wrote in this paper, "not relevant." Raise such a thought or question -- say one critical word about any aspect of the United States -- and you are soft, weak, pathetic. You are, at best, unwittingly complicit in terrorism, a "useful idiot." At worst, you secretly loathe western civilization.

In the opposite camp, there are equally strict requirements. Terrorism, for this tribe, is the harvest of American foreign policy or, more expansively, the arrogance of capitalism. Discussion of "root causes" is encouraged but only if those causes can be found in the Pentagon, the CIA, economic inequality, or -- for the hipper critics -- Nike and Starbucks.

However the inquiry goes, it must begin and end with the United States. Above all, in the camp on the left, one must never ask hard questions about Islamic countries, cultures or governments. Do so and you stand exposed as a consumerist drone, or perhaps an imperialist and racist.

I suspect I am not alone in being disgusted with both camps.

The crisis we face touches half the planet's nations and human beings. It boils up out of religion, culture, international relations, globalization, economics, history, law, war, modernity. And yet we are so polarized that the whole great storm has been reduced to one, insipid decision: America the victim or America the villain? Choose a camp and hunker down. This is a crisis, after all. Whose side are you on? I can only imagine what sharp, icy words George Orwell would say to that.

While bombs dropped and civilization swayed at the edge of the abyss, Orwell managed to pen an essay that was poised, calm and critical. England Your England, like all of Orwell's writing, does not sit comfortably in anyone's camp.

As a democratic socialist, Orwell naturally attacks England as "the most class-ridden country under the sun." The ruling toffs are "old and silly," the newspapers "deeply dishonest," the electoral system "unfair," the Empire a monstrous creation built on "hypocrisy."

If Orwell wrote as commentators have in the past two weeks, that would be that. Those in the leftist camp would applaud; those on the right would sneer but otherwise ignore everything he wrote.

But Orwell was far too intelligent for that. He carefully balanced his criticisms with wise observations that defied thoughtless ideology.

Appalling as the ruling classes may be, Orwell insists, they are morally sound, as demonstrated by the simple fact that "in time of war they are ready enough to get themselves killed." For all the dishonesty of the newspapers, Orwell writes, "I do not suppose there is one paper in England that can be straightforwardly bribed with hard cash." And the Empire "was peaceful as no area of comparable size has been. Throughout its vast extent, nearly a quarter of the earth, there were fewer armed men than would be found necessary by a minor Balkan state."

Orwell praises "the gentleness of English civilization" -- but notes that it is "mixed up with barbarities and anachronisms." He sees the faith the English have in the rule of law -- but adds, "it is not that anyone believes the law is just."

Orwell also has sharp words for the leftist intelligentsia -- with their "generally negative, querulous attitude, their complete lack at all times of any constructive suggestion."

Time and again in England Your England, Orwell rounds his judgments with nuances and exceptions. He refuses to mindlessly simplify. He understands that he is discussing something enormous and he treats it with due respect.

The result is an essay that is complex and yet startlingly clear. Orwell expresses a desperate love for his country and a bedrock conviction that it will survive. "The gentleness, the hypocrisy, the thoughtlessness, the reverence for law and the hatred of uniforms will remain, along with the suet puddings and the misty skies."

In the hour of blackest crisis for England and the world, when bombs whistled and windowpanes rattled, Orwell was passionate yet reasonable, confident yet thoughtful. He saw that there was black and white in the world, but also, between them, innumerable shades of grey.

The United States of 2001 is surely as complex and subtle as the England Orwell sketched 60 years ago. And yet, in place of Orwell's textured portrait, our commentators have drawn only caricatures: America the victim; America the villain.

Both camps are filled with passion and confidence but precious little reason or thoughtfulness. Both mock and ridicule their opponents. Neither listens to the other. Neither accepts that elements of truth may be found in the other side. Neither tolerates any shade of grey.

With the grand old phrase "western civilization" much in circulation these days, it's worth noting that the great thinkers of the western tradition would be appalled by this squalid little debate.

Socrates insisted that wisdom begins with uncertainty and a readiness to question.

John Stuart Mill, the apostle of free speech, wrote that for truth to blossom, all ideas, even wrong ideas, must be considered.

Michel de Montaigne was delighted by disagreement. "When someone opposes me, he arouses my attention, not my anger. I go to meet the man who contradicts me, who instructs me. The cause of truth should be the cause of both."

George Orwell, suffering the Blitz, could read Montaigne's wise counsel without embarrassment or shame. Whether we, in a lesser crisis, can do the same is much less certain.

Hindsight Bias in the New York Times

Monday, 06 December 2010 07:19

In the New York Times this weekend, there was a pristine example of how hindsight bias infects discussions about weighty matters:

"We’ve debated looming debt before, of course, most notably in the Reagan years and again in the early ’90s. But never did the crisis seem so immediate as now."

Evidence? None offered. It's just feels true. Which should set off alarm bells.

Go back and look at those earlier debates and you will find plenty of hair-rising immediacy. "This recession will be a picnic compared to where the country will be in 1997," wrote Senator Warren Rudman in 1992. That same year you can find a book whose title says it all on the New York Times best-seller list: Bankruptcy 1995."That year has marked for me the date of America's fiscal armageddon since I graphed the initial data in 1985," wrote author Harry Figgie, former co-chairman of Ronald Reagan's commission on the deficit, "because the debt and deficit lines goes absolutely vertical from that point on."

But bankruptcy didn't come in 1995 and so, from the perspective of today, the probability that it would, and the fear we felt at the time, are diminished. That's hindsight bias. Its influence in these sorts of debates should not be underestimated.

Over at the website of the Colbert Report, somebody posted some info about Future Babble along with an interview I did. Fine. In fact, delightful. Bless you, anonymous publicist.

But then there are the responses. In addition to some silly stuff -- hey, don't read that book! Read this glib article about Phil Tetlock's work! -- a seemingly informed person objects that it is a "myth" that experts said there would be no war before the First World War. That was a "sensationalized interpretation" of the writing of Norman Angell, who did not, in fact, predict that there would be no war.

What's incredibly frustrating about this is that I actually have a lengthy section on Norman Angell. I say that he is one of the very few experts to really suffer for making a failed prediction. Which is tragic. Because Norman Angell did not, contrary to popular belief, predict that there would be no war.

But what this otherwise astute commenter apparently does not know is that there were, in fact, many other experts who quite explicitly said "there will be no war." I quote several at the beginning of Future Babble. They include the great American economist John Bates Clark, the British historian G.P. Gooch, and the Manchester Guardian journalist H.N. Norman.

And yes, anonymous commenter, it's spelled "Angell." You're welcome.

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