13 December 2019

What is truth?

1. The Truth is... a riddle

What is something that humans seek, and don't know it when they see it?

The answer is the truth!

2. The Truth is... not known

Humans want to know the truth, 
but they don't know it when they see it.

(C.f. Jacobellis v Ohio 1964 in which the judge declined to define hard-core pornography, but famously said "I know it when I see it".)

The conundrum about knowing truth is captured in the idea of knowledge as justified true belief

It is said that we know something to be true if 
(a) we believe it to be true, 
(b) we have justification for our belief, and 
(c) it is true.

We can build towards knowledge 
with beliefs and justifications, 
but we fail unless it's true.

And how do we "know" if it's true?
Whether something is true, is unknown. 


3. The Truth is... out of reach

Truth is a destination that can never be reached.
rather like the end point in Zeno's paradox.

To get to our destination, 
we can agree that we must half the distance 
from our starting point to the end point, 
then half the distance from halfway to the end point, 
and then halve the remaining distance, 
and so on,
ad infinitum.

And therein lies the problem,
we approach,
but we never reach.

We get closer to truth,
or at least we think we do,
but we never arrive,
or do not know if we do.

Pursuing truth is like pursuing the horizon.
(Neil Gaiman used the metaphor in 
talking of the pursuit of perfection).

And thinking of horizons ...

4. The Truth is... relative

People once thought of the world as flat
and there is still, to this day, 
compelling evidence of that idea.

Spend 8 days at sea as I did recently, 
and every day, the world looked as if it was flat.

Of course there are images from out in space
showing the world is round.

So what is true?
What I see with my own eyes: flat?
Or what I see in images shown to me by others: sphere?

Is the evidence supplied by the device of another
truth or an artifact?
Galileo faced this problem when
proving the existence of Jupiter's moons
by sightings through his telescope.

the truth is...
the world isn't actually flat,
and it isn't a sphere either.
But both serve as good approximations
in certain circumstances.

For throwing a ball, 
believing the world is flat 

For throwing a satellite, 
believing the world is a sphere 

However, if you're flying a plane, 
starting at 1000' above sea-level;
treat it is flat, you'll fly into space,
treat it as spherical, you'll fly into mountains.

As Einstein showed (vis-a-vis Newton),
The truth is relative,

5. The Truth is... accessed indirectly

Seeing truth is like glimpsing a star 
If you look at it directly,
you cannot see it.

The truth is visible
in the twilight of my awaking,
but is gone by the time 
I open my eyes
let alone search for pen and paper.

It is like the answer to the riddle
which goes like this:

You are faced by two doors
one door leads to heaven 
the other to hell.
In front of the two doors
are two people who know which is which,
one person always tells the truth,  
the other always tells lies,
but you don't know which is which.

You can ask but ONE question of ONE guard.
What is your question?

The question that solves the riddle*
reveals the truth,
but not directly.
The answer to your question 
gives not the truth,
but a means to find the truth!

6. The Truth is... a paradox

* [SPOILER ALERT: This is the solution to the riddle asked at #5]
"If I was to ask the other person which is the door to heaven, which one would they point to?"
And the door that your interlocutor points to is actually the door to hell. You want to go through the other door, the one that they did not point to!

22 October 2019

Do you believe in God(s): Yes, No, or Other?

"Do you believe in God (however you choose to define that entity or those entities)?" 

A dichotomous version of this question would allow only "Yes" or "No" as responses. But doesn't this create a false dichotomy?

In particular, if I respond "No", someone might respond, "Ah, so you believe there is no god".  But that's not what I'm saying at all. I'm merely saying that I do not hold a belief in God. 

There is some ambiguity in the original version of the question "Do you believe in a god?"

One version is "Do you hold (or have) a belief in God?" To which I can legitimately respond, "Yes" or "No".
The other version is: "Does God exist?" To which a more nuanced response may be justified.

  • Affirmative - there is a god
  • Atheist - there is no god
  • Agnostic - I don't know (or "idk" online)
  • Apathetic - I don't care
The first version of the disambiguated question ("do you hold a belief in God") really hinges around the issue of whether a belief exists in me or not. And it seems self-evident that I should know whether I hold a belief or not. And that the truth of whether I hold a belief or not is for me to know, and for you to find out if and only if I tell you!
The second version ("does God exist?") hinges around whether God exists or not. And that can lead to a long and interesting discussion where the truth might never be plumbed.
Seeing the ambiguity better by changing the object
The ambiguity of the original question - and of the correct response - is important to a large degree because of the object: "God".
Consider another question in which I change the object to something like say a number that could be a phone number:
"Do you believe that +61 449 904 499 is a phone number (defined as a currently connected and operational Australian phone number)?"
What's your answer? (No dialling - what is your response without any evidence?).
In this question with a fairly trivial object (a possible phone number instead of a possible deity), you may feel inclined to respond "I don't know"
The response focuses then, on whether the phone number exists rather than whether the respondent's belief exists.
In the case of a non-trivial object such as God, the question could be about whether God exists or whether I hold a belief about God's existence.
And the disambiguation is important because many end up in arguments with others, not because they hold different beliefs per se, but because the your beliefs conflict or are incompatible with my beliefs. That is, the argument is not about what different beliefs one holds, but about what is true - all while the truth is uncertain.
"Do you believe in God?"
Are you asking me about the ontology of my belief or the ontology of God?
My response to the first is "No, I do not hold a belief in God." My response to the second is "I don't know whether God(s) exists'."

16 October 2019

Uncertainty about democracy

Democracy - a declining faith

While we deify the concept of democracy, it appears to have lost much of its shine. The magic of democracy has diminished as a number of numbers show.

The declining faith in democracy is illustrated in the marked reductions in voter turnout observed over the last 50 years in Australia and elsewhere in the world. Political scientist Simon Tormey in a 2016 lecture at Parliament House reports that while voter turnout varies from vote to vote, the general tendency is that we are becoming "reluctant voters".

21 September 2019

Degrees of desire

The three degrees of desire:
  • I'd like to be rich
  • I want love
  • I need air
The three degrees for dealing with desire:
  • gratitude: I am grateful for the riches I have received
  • detachment: I accept the love that is offered
  • nirvana (not needing): one day, I will stop grasping for air

07 September 2019

Puzzling views on life

Two inconsistent views about life

1. My life is nothing and supremely unimportant

2. My life is a great and glorious event

In short, life is nothing and nothing is great!


So, paradox, doublethink, conundrum, or something else?

Paradox: a logical contradictory statement: 'this statement is false'

Doublethink: "Holding contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them": "War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength" 1984, George Orwell

Conundrum: a riddle whose answer is or involves a pun or unexpected twist: "People say nothing is impossible, but I do nothing every day." Winnie the Pooh, A.A. Milne

29 June 2019

Science corrections - replication is much more important than retraction

(The original article appears at The Conversation under the title "Retraction of a journal article doesn't make its findings false.").
The American Medical Association recently retracted six papers co-authored by food consumption and psychology researcher, Brian Wansink, in three of its journals. These studies include two showing that large bowl sizes encourage us to eat more, and that shopping when hungry leads us to buy more calorie-dense foods.
A prolific academic researcher, Wansink has provided many thought-provoking ideas about the psychology of food consumption through more than 500 publications which have been collectively cited more than 25,000 times.
His research has shown that people will eat a lot more from a bottomless soup bowl; they will eat more from larger portions, even if it is stale popcorn or food served in a dark restaurant; and they will eat less if a portion is made to appear larger using visual illusions.
Retractions are a permanent means by which journals endeavour to preserve the integrity of scientific literature. They are typically issued for some form of misconduct, but it does not necessarily mean the results are false.

27 April 2019

My mistake

Life is long
... if you are lucky.

Making mistakes is inevitable,
learning is not!

Mistakes are made for lack of reflection*, but
learning is achieved only on reflection.

A daily practice:

Today, I made a mistake. I was wrong. I erred. 

What were the mistakes I made today?

What - if anything - could I do to avoid making such mistakes again?

* My mistake... only some mistakes result from lack of reflection! To repeat, 'making mistakes is inevitable'

10 January 2019

Getting it right by being uncertain

Certainty for humans is like a flame is to a moth.

Blind instinct takes us there, but we may well get burnt.

We might get more things right in this world if we were a little less certain about everything.

How can we avoid the trap of certainty?

The wrongs of the righteous

There's no lack of certainty in the world, and lots of evidence that despite that certainty, we're wrong!

13 October 2018

Marketing is plain sailing

Marketing is easy, but only if you really understand it.

And most people do not.

Most people think that marketing is powerful, that it can make people do things that they would not otherwise do.

We have a long history of being scared of such things - like hypnosis, subliminal messaging, hard sell salespeople, etc.

But just because we're scared of the bogeyman doesn't mean that he exists! Subliminal advertising was debunked decades ago - but many still believe it.

Marketing is like sailing. It does have the potential to be incredibly powerful, to drive ships around the world at considerable speed.

But the ship itself has no power. Rather, it is designed to harness the power of the wind.

And good marketing is designed to harness the power of the market, most notably, the will of the customer.

The customer's will, like the wind, is mindless. There is a clear direction in both wind and customer will, but knowing why it is going that way is difficult to know. Individual consumers are like the wind - drawn ineluctably in a particular direction, but without knowing why. Many times as consumers, we are drawn to things without really understanding why or how. 

The smart marketer feels the will of the customer on her face, and uses it to navigate in the direction she wants to go. 

In this view, the marketer no more leads the customer than the sailor leads the wind.

Yes, the sailor has a destination in mind, and sometimes, those destinations are difficult to reach. For those destinations, the sailor needs special skills, plotting angles and using the wind while tacking towards their destination. 

Sometimes, the destination is difficult to reach, it is a point within a cove laying to windward. In this situation, the wise sailor will lay off, and wait until the wind is blowing in a more favourable direction.

If the marketer is finding her job difficult, it may be because she is trying to oppose winds and currents that make up the market.

Marketing is like sailing. Progress is made by marshalling the power of the market. Good sailors use the wind, great sailors anticipate the wind.

Good marketers meet the market's will, great marketers anticipate the market's will.

20 August 2018

The blame game: sports, alcohol, & violence

A raft of headlines reported on a fascinating finding that linked State of Origin matches to a spike in domestic violence.

For instance, the SBS report ran the headline "Study exposes 'clear' Origin link to DV" (where DV is domestic violence).

Big story because basically, the data showed that between 6pm and 6am the next morning on State of Origin night, domestic violence increases by 40%. Incidentally, non-domestic violence (blokes beating up other blokes) went up by 70% as well.

Despite this sobering result, the media have leapt on this story, and spun a long drinking yarn. Specifically, they have drawn conclusions about the involvement of alcohol in all of this - even though alcohol consumption is not directly observed in the original study in any way.
More specifically, the media reports claims that alcohol advertising and sponsorship of these games is to blame (e.g., see NBN's reporting).

But that is not what the data show. The study is very simple and it simply shows that on game nights, there is a spike in violence. 

It is certainly reasonable to speculate that sports night encourages more socialising, more alcohol consumption, more excitement, more aggression perhaps. But it is difficult to claim that alcohol sponsorship is the cause. 

Run the counterfactual - if ALL advertising and sponsorship of such events by alcohol was eliminated, would the consumption of alcohol stop? More importantly, would the violence stop?

Claiming that the advertising of alcohol is the cause of violence on sports nights is like claiming that promotion of champagne is the cause of violence on New Year's Eve. 

And yes, there's a spike in violence on New Year's Eve as has been reported in Australia and overseas

This is not to say that alcohol is not a contributing factor. The sports event (like New Year's Eve) is a social event. Many people like to drink on a social event, some will drink too much, and some regrettably, may be violent.

That is, it is sporting and other social events encourage alcohol consumption. But some will argue, surely alcohol advertising is cuing people to drink? 

Surprisingly perhaps, there is not strong evidence to suggest that this is the case. A review of the cuing effects of food and beverage advertising suggests that it has little effect on consumption by adults.

Besides, a review of multiple studies show that the drinking patterns of children tend to be associated with the drinking patterns of their parents. 

We parents worry about the impact of alcohol advertising on children's drinking, but completely overlook the influence of our own drinking and that of our friends.

I am dismissive of media and public fears of alcohol advertising when I see adults who will down a beer to celebrate each time their team scores. And then ask one of their children to get them another beer from the fridge in readiness for the next score.

Not only is the story short on hard data, but it encourages more twittering about short advertising spots where everyone runs to the toilet to drain the last beer, all while ignoring the far more pervasive impact of how the whole culture in which we are immersed consumes alcohol.

Alcohol advertisers are not creating these problems. They are simply like seagulls drawn to chips on the beach. Sports events, public holidays and large public, social celebrations are when some people like to drink, and alcohol advertisers will squawk away in the hope of capturing their share of the chips.

To be clear, I have no aversion to the alcohol advertising and sponsorship being removed - partly because I simply am not much of a sports spectator. But I do have an objection to it being removed on false and specious grounds, and particularly if it removes what appears to be a pleasure and a joy for many.

The claim that alcohol advertising and sponsorship is the problem is a furphy.

Curiously, no-one seems to have correctly understood the real implications of this research. What this research evokes a deeper, darker concern.

The shows that big sports events tend to be associated with violence. The same result has been observed elsewhere in the world with large televised soccer matches in France and the UK leading to an increase of admissions to emergency departments.

The implication is that large sports events should be stopped! 

Suddenly, the supporters of sport will rally round protecting their pleasure from the fun-police. The methodology will be questioned, the conclusions challenged, the results dismissed. 

The game goes on, and we are reminded that much of research is really just a sport.