Sunday, 16 August 2015

Stephen Harper is #justnotconservative

     How long does it take for a word to become its own opposite? There are lots of words that have usages that are near-opposites ("sanction", for example) and groups of words derived from the same root that have come to be opposites in a way ("host" and "guest", which are related to "hostile" and "ghost"), but the inversion of "conservative" is a curious case, because I've seen it flip in my lifetime.

     Once upon a time, to be conservative meant to be prudent and frugal. Conservatives recognized that the institutions of our society did not spring fully formed from the minds of one or two Great Leaders, but are the product of centuries of modification and refinement. A conservative looks at the vast accumulated experience of the common law, and humbly admits that she might not know why this or that rule or maxim was adopted, but assumes that it must be there for a good reason, if it's withstood centuries of testing, and so she applies the sensible principle: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." At the same time, she sees that this process of refinement is ongoing, and that careful incremental adjustments may still be necessary, but always tempered by an awareness that nobody really knows what they're doing well enough to be entrusted with making huge sweeping changes.
     I am happy to describe myself as conservative in this sense. As a law student, I enjoyed browsing through the ancient and honest-to-goodness-dusty old law reports, where learned judges now long dead wrote with great care about the reasoning that led to the decisions they delivered, and I was struck at how little has changed in the sorts of ordinary disputes human beings have with each other. We still bicker about who owns what and who owes what to whom and whether or not this or that insult should be compensated and how. We have a lot of experience in resolving these questions, and while it doesn't mean they've become easy, the basic principles of the process, the rules of evidence and the procedural rights of the participants, are exceptionally well-developed.

     There are some hints of this meaning still. Conservatives still claim to be motivated by moral values often considered old fashioned, and they like to think of themselves as students of history; it's easy to see how conservatism as I have described it could be associated with an affection for the past, even a preference for the Good Old Days.  It's an easy mistake to make, to jump from respecting the refined and polished results of many generations of muddling to concluding that the older generations themselves must have been smarter than today's young whippersnappers. Combine that with the way most of us seem to acquire a sense of entitlement to respect from our juniors as we age, and it's only natural that there be considerable overlap between prudent deference to tradition and curmudgeonly old-fogeyism, and that both of these things would be conflated together under the label "conservatism".

     But that overlap has always existed, and isn't the radical flip in meaning I'm talking about. The change I've observed has its roots in the election of Ronald Reagan. The shift was subtle at first. The older, traditionally conservative caution that we today should be careful how we govern because we are prone to error, morphed into a distrust of government itself; the motto "Government is the problem!" became mainstream with Reagan and Thatcher and has become the central tenet of those who today call themselves conservative.
     Subtle though the shift itself appears, it is radical, especially when combined with nostalgia for the good old days (which never actually existed) before government came along and ruined everything. The deference conservatives once held for time-tested human institutions, principles and traditions is now paid to The Market, and any government intervention in or tinkering with the Invisible Hand is anathema. Today's conservatives are supremely confident in their own expertise and judgment, and feel perfectly qualified to yank out and discard pieces of the engine of government without knowing or caring what vital functions they might have performed. The goal, as Grover Norquist has put it, is to shrink government down to the size where it can be drowned in a bathtub.
     Once upon a time we would have called this ideology "anarchism". But that word still bears the stigma of bomb-throwing crackpots of the early 20th century, if it is taken seriously at all. The anarchists have achieved quite a coup in seizing for themselves the label of "Conservative", a much more respectable word, with its cachet of common sense and frugality (even if the only thing today's conservatives are now frugal with is common sense).
     Today's "Conservative Party of Canada" is by far the least conservative of any of the parties running in this year's federal election. They are radical reformers, having managed to obtain the name "Conservative" when the old Progressive Conservatives disbanded after a particularly disastrous election defeat, and merged with what had formerly been called the Reform Party. "Progressive Conservative" may sound like an oxymoron, but it isn't when you recognize that what they're trying to conserve and build upon is the result of centuries of incremental progress. "Reform", however, is much more nearly an opposite to the traditional meaning of "conservative". Yet it is the reformers who today march under the Conservative banner.
     So it is richly ironic to hear the campaign rhetoric, playing heavily upon the connotations of "conservative", urging us to be careful, not to take chances, to keep a steady hand on the helm, as if there is anything prudent or cautious about the party currently claiming to be conservative.
     You may agree with their decisions to cut funding to Statistics Canada, abolish the long form census and scrap libraries of scientific data that took decades to compile, throwing away important sources of information upon which sound policy decisions can be made. But that's just not conservative.
     Maybe you agree with Prime Minister Harper that elections, parliamentary procedures and civil rights are inconvenient obstacles to Getting Things Done, and support his efforts to minimize these checks on his power. But that's just not conservative.
     Maybe you think we live in a new and dangerous world, and that the ancient legal rights now codified in our Charter were never designed to contend with anything so shocking as plots of violence against Parliament itself. Maybe you think we need to surrender some of those rights in order to be safe. But that's just not conservative.
     Maybe you think we'd all be better off without the CBC or Canada Post or national parks or universal health care. Maybe you are in favour of all of the radical reforms the Harper Government has put into motion. I think these are all really, really bad ideas, but I am fundamentally committed to democracy and your right to support whatever policy platform you want. But understand that Harper's party is really #justnotconservative.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Trust the Experts: They're not THAT Smart.

     There are two very opposite mistakes crackpots and conspiracy theorist often make when they take issue with expert knowledge. The first, when I described here, is to grossly underestimate the intelligence of their opponents, whom they accuse of missing some ridiculously obvious fact. The second is to absurdly overestimate their abilities, usually when they're postulating some kind of elaborate coverup conspiracy.

      Consider the fortune-cookie admonishment, sometimes attributed to Benjamin Franklin (who predated fortune cookies, so it's plausible): "Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead." Why three and two, instead of two and one?
      Two people can keep a secret, because each knows exactly whom to blame if the secret gets out. If three people know a secret, and someone talks, the other two have a mystery on their hands, and may blame each other instead of the true leak. And if three people know a secret and one of them ends up dead, the other two may have much more reason to distrust each other, and motive to defect.
      The problem becomes exponentially greater the more people are in on the secret, and not just because there is less chance of being blamed for a leak. One person, keeping a secret to himself, will talk to no one. Two conspirators might talk to each other, so there's a chance of being overheard. Three conspirators have three pairings (AB, AC, BC) for secret communications that might be overheard. If you're part of a conspiracy with a hundred fellow co-conspirators you might on occasion talk to about the conspiracy, the opportunities for accidental leaks multiply fruitfully.
      So big secrets, involving hundreds or thousands of people in the know, are really hard to keep secret. Insanely, ridiculously difficult. Only in the most unusual circumstances has it been possible to pull this off, and then only for a relatively short time. The code breakers at Bletchley Park, for example, followed extremely strict protocols, but there's more to it than that: they were fighting a war against the Nazis which provided a very, very strong motivation to be careful.

      Let us then look at a typical "expert" conspiracy, one fairly near to my heart: that Big Pharma has been covering up a cheap and effective cure for cancer because they don't want to lose the vast profits they earn through less effective treatments.
      This is complicated, because there are actually several different secrets that need to be kept here, and "how to cure cancer" is only one of them. They'd also have to deal with a number of secondary secrets about the coverup itself, such as who knows about it, how they're motivating people to keep quiet, and so on. And those are very difficult to cover up, because unlike the codebreakers at Bletchley Park, it's kinda hard to sell "So we can make lots of money while people die" as a worthy motivation, especially when it's from a disease like cancer from which no one is safe. Seriously, if you were a cancer researcher, and you'd stumbled across a potential cure, how much money would you need to keep your mouth shut? And how much would that number change if your friend, your spouse, your child had a diagnosis? Those outrageous profits to Big Pharma would start to get spread pretty thin.
     Sure, we can get more sinister, if you want. Maybe The Conspiracy doesn't bribe cancer researchers. Maybe it makes them another offer, one they can't refuse. Something terrible will happen to them, something worse than them or their loved ones dying of cancer, if they let the secret out.
     Know what the problem with that is? A threat needs to be credible, and scientists in particular tend to be skeptical people: evidence is their business. So you've got to expect that a few of them are going to need more than just an anonymous "stop it, or else..." letter. Which means that you're going to have to let them in on some of your methods, so they'll believe you mean business when you tell them what will happen. And now you have someone in on a bit of your secret who is not entirely willing to cooperate, someone who will be looking for some possible opportunity to stop you. Because not only are you threatening him and his family, you're also doing it to conceal a valuable boon to humanity he's devoted his entire career to finding.
     But those secrets, difficult as they are to keep, are nothing compared to the big one, the primary secret of How To Cure Cancer. Because while maybe you have control over all your fanatically loyal operatives and can contain any situation they're involved with, Nature herself isn't on your team. There are thousands, even millions of people around the globe trying their best to figure out the puzzles of cancer. Some of them are very smart. How are you going to keep them from discovering something, and sharing what they learn? Especially when the entire scientific enterprise is based on publishing and reproducing results, and entire industries exist for just that purpose? They do, after all, publish results, lots and lots and lots of them. The sheer volume of material out there is much more than anyone can process, which is why there are so many scientists collaborating on these monumental challenges. And they're getting their results, not from some library you control, but from experiments and observations they're performing themselves, on real patients and real drugs.

     Just try to imagine how staggeringly difficult and complex a task it would be to fool or silence all of these people. It is truly mind-numbingly difficult, probably harder than curing cancer itself. In order to pull it off, you'd have to be superhumanly clever, and ridiculously powerful. And so think about it: if you were that smart and that powerful, why would you even care about the measly profits to be made from selling overpriced therapies that don't really work? If you can coerce  hundreds or thousands of brilliant researchers into concealing their research, why can you not just extort trillions of dollars from everyone else? Or heck, why even bother with money, which is just a way of trading with people for what you want. You've got the power to force people to act against their own interests; there's no need to trade with anyone!

     Telling a lie, telling a truly convincing and consistent lie, is really hard. People do it sometimes, and yes, there are successful conspiracies and coverups. Of course it's relatively easy for an expert to bluff their way past a completely ignorant lay person. But if you educate yourself a little, and ask intelligent questions, and try earnestly to understand what you're being told, it quickly gets much harder to sustain a consistent lie.
     You might hit the limits of your understanding, but if that happens, the humble and proper thing to do is to acknowledge that you really don't know, and reserve judgment, not to conclude that the experts must be lying to everyone. Because while they might well be smart enough to fool you, they're almost certainly not smart enough to fool everyone else.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Healthy Natural Foods: An Evolutionary Perspective

     Most of us don't think very intently about biology. Physics, sure -- we are constantly and often consciously applying Newton's laws whether we're tossing something in the wastebasket or driving down the highway -- but biology? No. Perhaps this is because Darwinian evolution, the central unifying principle of biology, is so poorly misunderstood by the public (thanks in part to creationists who go out of their way to Teach The Controversy in the form of their own tortured misconceptions), or perhaps it is because we fall into the trap of thinking that it's irrelevant to our daily lives, but in any case, it's unfortunate, because we are biological creatures and just about everything about us is informed by our evolutionary origins.
     In this post, I want to show how an understanding of the broad principles of evolution and ecology can help us avoid being taken in by a particular silly health fad, in the hope that the reader might learn to apply a similar critical informed approach to other fads as they appear.

     So let's consider a fairly common and plausible sounding claim here, one that underlies not just the Paleo Diet but a lot of basic "common-sense" thinking about health and food. The idea is that it's better to have foods that more closely resemble the kind of food we must have eaten in our pre-industrial past, natural raw unprocessed foods, because these are the sorts of foods we evolved to eat. Our bodies simply aren't equipped, so the argument goes, to deal with the incredibly rich diet our industrial age allows us, and all those artificial flavourings and preservatives can't possibly be good for us.
     That sounds eminently reasonable, and indeed it does seem to make solid evolutionary sense. After all, if we hominids have had millions of years to refine our ability to produce just the right enzymes to digest fresh fruit and insect grubs, why mess with a good thing? Why on earth would we expect to be able to digest a chemical invented within our lifetimes?

     Well, it's reasonable as far as it goes, but it's also incomplete. What it overlooks is that evolution doesn't just explain how we got here; it's the single unifying principle to all of biology, and also explains how every other living thing got here, including the ones that we eat.
     See, being eaten is usually how you lose the game of evolution. Every living thing on this planet is descended from an unbroken line of organisms that somehow managed to avoid being consumed until they produced at least one descendant. Every single cell in every body traces itself back through such a line to one common ancestor. Countless siblings have died without issue (often eaten by some other creature), but even they were descendants of unbroken lines of successful ancestors.
     This has been going on for something like three billion years. The occasional link in that chain might have survived just by sheer dumb luck, but the law of averages is against luck when such enormous time scales are involved. Most of your ancestors survived because they had an edge over the things that were trying to eat them, or the things they were trying to eat. Not a big edge, mind you. Just enough of one to survive, just long enough to produce offspring.
     Evolution isn't about perfection, after all. It's all about just good enough, but after three billion years of it, just good enough is pretty amazingly good, which is why we (and all living things) seem to be so exquisitely well-adapted to our environments.
     But we're not. The gazelle is just barely fast enough to escape the cheetah most of the time, and the cheetah is just barely fast enough to catch enough gazelles to make baby cheetahs. Plants (including the ones we eat) have evolved toxins or thorns or other defenses just barely good enough to kill or deter things from eating them enough for some of them to produce baby plants. And we became just barely good enough to survive eating those toxins long enough to produce human babies.

     The point here is that the foods we ate in our ancestral evolutionary environment really, really didn't want to be eaten, and they were trying to kill us, and they often succeeded. We just happen to be really tough, and really clever at figuring out ways to get around their defences so we could eat them without being fatally poisoned or otherwise killed. We discovered that if you heat some things over a fire, they become easier to chew and digest. We discovered that if you plant seeds from mutant not-so-poisonous fruit, you get more mutant not-so-poisonous fruit. We learned out to breed plants and animals that were easy to eat, and make more of them.
     While Nature is not exclusively red in tooth and claw, and there are lots of examples of symbiosis and cooperation (like tasty edible fruit to get animals to plant seeds in fresh manure), there really never was an ideal time when we lived in perfect harmony with Nature and it gave us everything we needed to live long happy lives. Modern agriculture and processed foods are not some perversion of what once was good and pure; they are a continuation of what we have always done, which is trying to make sure we have enough food to make babies.

     I am not saying here that all diets are equally healthy, or that natural foods are bad for you. Some foods are certainly much better for you than others, and there are definitely good reasons to pay attention to what we eat. I'm not a nutritionist or a biologist, and I don't pretend to offer any specific advice as to what you should or shouldn't include in your diet. What I am saying is that just as a solid grasp of the concepts of force and momentum can help you to make better driving decisions, a clear understanding of our evolution and ecology can better equip you to evaluate claims about diet and health.