Saturday, 3 December 2016

Shock and "Or..."

Day 4 (Sunday 4th December 2016)

4th ever closure of Disney World in its 45 year history
occurred from 5.00pm on Thursday 6th through to the end of Friday 7th October, 
due to the threat posed by Hurricane Matthew. The other 3 closures 
were also due to hurricanes - twice in 1999 and once in 2004.

Today's piece is written by my friend, David Christensen who was a fellow student, in the same college as me, at Cambridge - many people were surprised that we socialised together and enjoyed each other's company - he was (is) seriously clever and does not tolerate fools. David attained a First in Maths and Computer Science and, long before most of us were aware of the power of technology and the use of algorithms to solve complex global and business problems, David was leading the field. He is internationally recognised for the work he has done, over a number of years, to develop stochastic modelling tools that enable effective financial modelling within the insurance industry. David was a driving force in the team that established Igloo as the leading product across the sector - it is used by more than 700 insurance organisations around the world - actuaries are in awe of him. David works for Willis Towers Watson, where he is the Technology Leader, specialising in technical research and development in insurance capital modelling, within the Property & Causality team.

There is much more to David than just being good at maths and coding, he is well-read and well-travelled (even by bike in Cambridgeshire). Possessing an excellent palate, he (and his inspirational wife Sarah) have enjoyed sampling superb wines and fine food in locations across the globe. They stand out (and not just because they are both tall). In addition, they are both crack shots - David has been the County Champion for Clay Pigeon Shooting for Cambridgeshire and is one of the best competitive shooters in the country. I hope his post hits the mark for you.


Shock and "Or..."

Thank you to Kate Griffiths-Lambeth for inviting me to contribute an Advent blog under the theme of Heights, Hollows and Hearts. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the events of the year, I intend to write about opposites (Heights and Hollows) and how emotions and beliefs (Hearts) can form barriers between them. I also hope to suggest some small steps we can all take to attempt to add some level of control to the out-of-control juggernaut that is political and social interaction in 2016.

I don't make any claims to originality in what I say here, although the exact expression and examples are my own. Recent events have caused quite a few people to say similar things. This doesn't make the message any less worth spreading, so I hope my attempt to get people thinking about it via Kate's blog can do some good. While I will be discussing political events, I am trying my hardest to distance this piece from political opinion; it is the preservation and development of social niceties that concerns me more than the political outcomes.

This picture does NOT indicate the writer's attitude
but it makes a point about some people's stance within our society

The Context

2016 has featured two elections (so far!) with important results that many were stunned by. 

In an age of ever-faster communication and increasing coverage by traditional and social media, how can so many people have been so surprised? I'm not talking about the failure of polls (although that is a fascinating subject), but about the shock and disbelief that many (winners and losers) felt after the results. Amongst my friends there was a chorus of "how could it have happened?" and "how on earth could anyone think voting the other way was sensible?" and a saddening quantity of "are they all idiots?".

Filtered Truth

I believe that the increased ease of communication and sheer quantity of information available to everyone via technology has had two interesting effects. Firstly, because information is easier to get hold of, you need to talk to fewer people to get it. For example, it may be easy to discover online that say 73.8% of your near neighbours have opinion X as opposed to Y. If you also hold opinion X, it is easy to stop there, because 73.8% is nearly everyone, right? 

Nothing in this process has done anything other than confirm your belief. If you'd had to go out and ask people, you'd have encountered about a quarter of people disagreeing with you, and some of those would probably have gone beyond a straight X/Y statement, and you would have been exposed to some Y opinions.

Tailored Truth

Furthermore, when you look further afield, you are most likely, these days, to do it via either social or conventional media. Let's start with conventional media: sadly, most newspapers and TV channels these days are highly stuck in their ways. You're not going to confuse a Fox News report with a BBC one very often! Since peoples' views also tend to be static, they will tend to find a channel/paper they agree with, and then stick with it; it's a rare individual who chooses to immerse themselves in things they disagree with - I like to think I have an above average interest in engaging with opposing views (or "argumentative" as some say J) but I still read the same daily newspaper my parents introduced me to in the 1970s.

Since you're likely to be stuck with your political leanings, you might want to measure them.

Luckily there is a website,, that allows you to answer a few simple questions to place yourself not only on the left/right political scale, but also the libertarian/authoritarian scale. You might be surprised where you end up - I was. For comparison, they will place on you a graph with the main parties or candidates in recent elections. For example, the UK 2015 election on the left, or (perhaps more alarmingly) governments in the EU as of 2012

Social Media

Social media has picked up on this desire to be surrounded by literally agreeable content, and subjects you to two forms of confirmation of your opinions.
  • Apps such as Facebook that allow you to share discussion with "friends" mean that you will mainly see and hear your friends. It's not like overhearing the next table in the pub or someone talking too loudly on the train. If there is someone in your feed saying things you disagree with, you can block them or unfriend them and they effortlessly go away.

  • Like all the worst narcissists, the tendency is to surround yourself with mirrors and yes-(wo)men.
  • Social media is a major news source these days; Pew Research published data in May that 62% of US Adults get news from social media, more than twice as many as read newspapers . And guess what? Social media companies want you to keep coming back to their sites (so you can click on adverts), so they try to make sure that you only see news you like. You effectively have your own confirmatory newspaper - perhaps it should be called the Narcissist News?

The problem with being presented with news you agree with is that it makes you less critical of its contents. Known as "confirmation bias", this is the natural human tendency to believe things which agree with our original thought and disbelieve things which challenge it. We all do it, to a greater or lesser extent (I haven't found any evidence to the contrary).

The Problem

Despite surrounding ourselves with a hall of virtual mirrors, the reality is that things are not homogeneous. In early June, I drove a route which took me through both Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire/Yorkshire. I doubt that many people in either location were aware of quite how polar opposites they were on the subject of the EU referendum. The scary bit is not the difference of opinion, but the lack of understanding of the existence of dissent (particularly amongst those supported the status quo). The problem that I see is that the vote - even more than the US election - hasn't really changed anything. There are still two camps who don't talk to each other much, and, when they do, I generally see an argument that gets people nowhere.

How not to argue

Typically, post-vote arguments go like this:

Person APerson B
I believe X
You're wrong
No, look, here's a logical argument as to why X is right
I don't care, I believe Y
But here's a logical argument as to why Y is wrong
I still believe Y
I think you're stupid/ignorant
You're just trying to prove you're morally or intellectually superior.

This argument often occurs between (I'm using these terms very loosely) a rationalist (A) and an emotionalist (B), and not always representing the same sides of the argument. I think this is because obvious when two rationalists argue the points around the votes, they realise that the issues are way too complex for a short argument and it fizzles out. Two emotionalists have probably either unfriended each other, got into a fight, or realised there is nothing but pain in continuing. But when you get rationalists and emotionalists arguing the point, it seems to run and run with many variations on the same basic theme. I do wonder whether there is a meta-problem here; arguments about different beliefs are least productive amongst rationalists and emotionalists because they don't even notice that rationalism and emotionalism are themselves different beliefs.

Anyone who does not understand their opponent is condemned to repeat themselves endlessly (or disengage to go and talk to someone they agree with).

Ask a Professor

To quote Randall B Smith, Scanlan Professor of Theology at the University of St Thomas in Houston (full article here), talking about his frustrations with today's students:
The more students dismiss the resources of critical reason, the less faith they have in reasoned judgments. The less faith they have in reasoned judgments, the more likely they are to assume every decision they find offensive is based on ill will or gross stupidity, and the more indignant they are likely to be in their condemnations. The louder and more intractable the disputes between parties, the more those with less stomach for the fight will withdraw into postmodernism's "ironic detachment": the shrug of the shoulders and the ubiquitous "whatever."
However, I think this lack of critical reasoning ability is only part of the problem. Increasingly I think that people under-use "why?" as a question. In the hypothetical exchange, above, what A should be doing is not presenting an argument as to why A thinks Y is wrong; A should be considering why B thinks Y is right. A is not trying to change his own belief system (although I would argue he should always be challenging it), he is trying to change B's. You don't win an argument by establishing an abstract truth (that's science !), you win an argument by changing a belief.

Why did they say that?

What we all need to do is to understand why people think differently from us. It's not that person B was born believing Y. Something made them think that. It may be as simple as their "sources of truth" are different to yours - which may be on any number of levels: the effect of hundreds of smart students from the EU adding to a varied discourse at Cambridge University will present a very different "truth" about immigration to thousands of farm labourers from Eastern Europe disrupting the labour market in Lincolnshire. But neither of these groups is very likely to see the impact on the other, even if they could be persuaded that it is the overall sum that matters rather than the individual impacts. It may be from which newspapers you read; if your paper tells you three things which you know from experience are true, then you are also likely to believe the fourth thing is says that you don't have experience of. It may be as simple as parental influence. These latter two raise the question of why did their news source or parents believe something...

"Yeah, but we won"

The way many of the post-vote arguments end is with "yeah, but we won". Whilst this may be true, it is meaningless on two levels. People decry Twitter for 140 character tweets being too short for real information. But a referendum is 1 bit: yes/no, in/out. It is the minimum amount of information it is possible to convey. Even the question for the EU referendum was less than 2/3rds of a tweet. So whilst one side "won", it will be years before we know what they have "won". 

Secondly, it's not like winning £1M in a lottery, where the winner gets it and the losers don't. We all get the result of the vote. Bar those fleeing the country in horror, we have to stay and live with it. And with each other.

What to do about it

If we are to peacefully coexist in this post-vote world (and I do worry that peace, both domestic and international, might be at risk), then we need to understand each other more. We need to try to de-polarize our belief systems and information sources. We need to welcome a challenge to how we see the world. We need to understand why others think what they do. We need to share understanding rather than trying to destroy conflicting views. We need to win over hearts as well as minds, and concede that we, too, may be swayed, whoever we are. When we encounter a nasty surprise, we need to move on from the shock, and consider the possibilities of "or..."

Since this is an Advent blog, I'll conclude by saying that if we can all make just a little progress in these areas, then we may be on our way to a Happy Christmas!

David Christensen

Links for further reading if you haven't had enough already
A Call for Intellectual Humility
Confirmation Bias
Don't mistake an assumption for a fact and (same site) The genetic fallacy: When is it okay to criticize a source?
British Newspapers - you are what you read (not least for the amusing video links)
Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Late on Friday night David contacted me and suggested I simply scrub his post and put up the words to rock band Rush's "Second Nature" from the album "Hold Your Fire" as, despite being released in 1987, the lyrics seem to encapsulate much of what David has said above.

"Second Nature"
A memo to a higher office
Open letter to the powers that be
To a god, a king, a head of state
A captain of industry
To the movers and the shakers...
Can't everybody see?

It ought to be second nature
I mean, the places where we live
Let's talk about this sensibly
We're not insensitive
I know progress has no patience
But something's got to give

I know you're different
You know I'm the same
We're both too busy
To be taking the blame
I'd like some changes
But you don't have the time
We can't go on thinking
It's a victimless crime
No one is blameless
But we're all without shame
We fight the fire while we're feeding the flames

Folks have got to make choices
And choices got to have voices
Folks are basically decent
Conventional wisdom would say
But we read about the exceptions
In the papers every day

It ought to be second nature
At least, that's what I feel
Now I lay me down in Dreamland
I know perfect's not for real
I thought we might get closer
But I'm ready to make a deal

Today is different, and tomorrow the same
It's hard to take the world the way that it came
Too many rapids keep us sweeping along
Too many captains keep on steering us wrong
It's hard to take the heat
It's hard to lay blame
To fight the fire while we're feeding the flames

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