The fourth post in my Blogging for the Holidays series, a bit on the post-truth world we live in today.
I decided to search for the term “post-truth” before I starting writing this entry, as I wanted to confirm that I was using the right language. That took me to the Wikipedia page on the topic where I was a bit surprised to discover the term was coined over five years ago to describe a phenomenon whose consequences we’re only beginning to grasp today. And even then the term was describing something that, for years, we had all seen claw it’s way into the world, even if we couldn’t name it.
Facts. Truth. Reality. We used to collectively joke that the way you could tell someone was crazy or high was by whether or not they described the sky as blue. Today, it wouldn’t surprise me if there was some Telegram channel somewhere claiming the sky was actually red and that the United States was engaged in a massive psy-op to convince us otherwise.
It feels like, in the last four or five years, the rate of erosion of our shared understanding of reality has only accelerated. The Internet has served as fertile ground for a rotten crop of lies and conspiracy theories, egged on by corrupt politicians who recognize the manipulative power of such things.
But deep down I think there’s something more fundamental going on: I think people find themselves frustrated and bewildered by a world we don’t understand, and so they’re looking for certainty and simplicity in an increasingly uncertain, complicated, and rapidly changing world.
And into that confusion has come misinformation peddlers and conspiracy theorists who’ve learned how to weaponize the Internet, allowing them to exploit the vulnerable for personal gain.Continue reading...
The third post in my Blogging for the Holidays series: Grappling with Statistics. Hopefully not so heavy…
We ask a lot of the human brain these days. For a species that evolved on the savannah of Africa, hunting and gathering in small social groups, we’re now a population of 8 billion people living and working together, tackling ever large and more complex problems. Through application of our incredible minds, unmatched in the rest of the natural world, we’ve managed to spread to every corner of the planet, plumbed the depths of the earth, dived to the bottoms of the oceans, and extended our reach into the solar system.
And yet, through it all, we find ourselves grappling with ideas that seems beyond the reach of our comprehension.
Let’s try a little Stoic exercise. First, visualize yourself from above in the room you’re sitting in now. Next, pull back, and try to visualize your home and your position in it. Now pull back again, visualizing the block on which your house sits. And again, but your quadrant of the city. Now the city itself.
Now consider how quickly you lose the ability to truly reason about size and distance. For me, beyond my local neighbourhood, I start to lose a sense of scale. When just thinking about my city, I can only picture my position on the map because of how often I’ve punched my address into a GPS.
Next imagine the scale of your country or the planet. Already we’re beyond the reach of the human mind to reason. Instead, we have to rely on relatable metaphors that connect our ground truths to these types of scales.
And the solar system? Our galaxy? Good luck. The universe? Impossible!
The same can be said of many concepts. I’ve long believed that the inability for humanity to truly rally together to address climate change is, to a great degree, a consequence of the inability of the human mind to truly understand the magnitude of aggregate human impact on the planet, or the timescales over which we’re changing it. Humanity itself has gotten so large that our collective behaviour is beyond our intuition.
Probability and statistics are another example of this phenomenon. The human mind is simply not wired to think in these terms–I suspect this is one of the many reasons why Dr. Richard Feynman is famously quoted as saying “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.”
Now, in the past, we mostly led our lives without spending a lot of time thinking about statistics. Rather, we’d use our intuition to make what we believed were sensible decisions every day; intuition that was often very wrong! But in the end, given the localized impacts of these decisions, that they were based on faulty reasoning didn’t matter all that much.
But, of course, the pandemic has upended things, turning normal uncertainty into life-or-death decision making. And we’re just not wired for it.Continue reading...
The second post in my Blogging for the Holidays series: Grappling with Viruses. Starting with the heavy stuff…
There is no shortage of diseases in the world that regularly sicken or kill people. Diseases like Malaria, for example, continue to threaten people throughout the world and particularly in the global south. However, it wasn’t that long ago that the threat of communicable disease was simply part of everyday life. So prominent was disease in our lives that it has a special place in our myths, often presented as the wrath of angry gods. It even gets its a mention in the biblical prophesies of Revelations.
But today, communicable diseases, particularly in the privileged west, are largely seen as distant and manageable risks. Few go through their daily lives worried that they might be exposed to some deadly pathogen that might kill them or their friends or family.
Contrast this with the case of Smallpox. Just 400 years ago, to manage the disease, people in Asia and the Middle East developed the technique of variolation. Those practicing variolation would take the scabs or fluid from the pustules of the infected and would rub it into scratches on the skin of the well, in the hopes of triggering a minor infection that would impart immunity.
Imagine that! Imagine being so afraid of a disease that you’d scratch yourself and rub someone else’s pus into the wound.
It’s truly hard to fathom.
But such was the world before antibiotics and vaccinations, when communicable disease felled entire communities. Smallpox itself is thought to have killed between 300 and 500 million people before its eradication in the late 1970s.
The dual miracles of antibiotics and vaccination have made for a far far safer world. Yet it’s this very fact that has left so many of us so unprepared for the realities of a pandemic.Continue reading...
I’m off for the next 16 days (yay!) so I’m introducing an attempted holiday blog series! This is gonna be… something.
Writing on a regular basis is something I really struggle with. As is true of so many of us, at the end of the day, after long hours of remote work under the cloud of pandemic-induce malaise, I just don’t have the energy or creativity to write very much. This is particularly frustrating because the past two years are a complete blur. A regular cadence of blog posts would have given me something to grab onto, and more importantly, something to look back to when I wondered, bleary-eyed and exhausted, at what the heck has been going on for the last 24 months.
But 2021 has finally coming to an end! My vacation begins today (okay, fine, I’ll probably be doing a little bit of work, but hopefully not much) and, rather than just letting these next 16 days just slip by, I thought I’d try to mark the time by writing each day.
Some of these posts might just be quick notes! Others might be long-form posts. I doubt any will be particularly long… though, honestly, who really knows.
But what to write about?
A few things spring to mind. First off, I want to do a little sub-series that I think I’m gonna call “Grappling With”. The pandemic in general, and the last year in particular, has forced folks around my age and younger1 to face concepts that we’ve been able to take for granted for at least a generation, and in some cases even longer, including:
- Communicable diseases
- Supply chains
- Risks and statistics
- Political institutions
- Information and misinformation
- Labour relations
- How we work
You know, the little stuff.
So I thought I’d write a post on each of these topics, laying out, as an individual, what I’m up against when facing these things that I’ve been able to ignore for so long.
Now, that’s great, but it can’t be all serious stuff, so what else? Honestly, I don’t know! I’m hoping to do a bunch of reading, watching movies, and some coding amongst the various domestic chores I need to catch up on, so maybe a bit about those activities? Or a couple posts of photos from the year? Not sure yet!
Of course, the most pressing question is: does this post count? I kinda think it does? But who knows. If I’m feeling motivated, maybe I’ll write a bit more today! It’s my vacation. I can do what I want!