Dream and Revelation

My post on the dangers of taking a stand against science on fluoride has already had more hits than my one on why I think Abbott is fairly unlikely to win a majority in his own right at the next election, proving, once again that I have no idea which posts will prove popular.

The only solution to this seems to be to post as often and diversely as possible, in the hope some things will resonate.

In that vein, I bring you two slightly related ideas that popped into my head today. The first came in the form of a dream. I’ll spare you the beginning which was so saccharine I could consider selling it to Disney except I’d have to do it anonymously lest I be run out of Brunswick on a rail. The point of the dream was that I was trying to get two groups of people who had formed themselves into warring tribes to stop fighting and at least talk to each other.

In the end I gathered them together (the fact that they listened to me was actually the least credible part of the whole thing, but hey it was my dream) and asked everyone a series of questions about where they stood on the issue. To do this I had them all shut their eyes and raise their hands if they supported a particular position, then open their eyes to see where everyone else stood. I started off with aspects that would appeal only to the most extreme members of the one group and slowly worked my way through. (My subconscious brain having an even shorter attention span than my conscious mind I only got to the second question before waking up, but the idea was clear).

The point of this was to show people that rather than being for or against a particular position most people were actually part of a spectrum, and there were many moderates who had more in common with those on the “other side” than the extremists in their own camp. The dream involved partisans well outside the Middle East on the Israel/Palestine question, but the idea could just as easily be applied to more science-related issues such as GMOs, Nuclear Power or possibly even Climate Change (although I am guessing it would not work so well in the last case).

I imagine the idea is not original, but I can’t remember every having heard of it before in this way (the close your eyes and raise your hand technique of course is used for other things). It would be a dangerous game of course. If even one group mostly pick the most extreme positions you’re left with a situation even more tribalised than before, but a little prior research might help determine when to use it.

This fits very well with my idea that we should discuss controversies, not by saying whether we are for or against but ranking ourselves on a scale of one to ten.

The other thought that struck me isn’t a proposal, but might be significant in analysing what has happened to the right-wing community in the Anglosphere. It struck me that many people have got so partisan they have had to suppress logic functioning to a point where they may be able to implement it when required. That’s not very original, but I think the example that occurred to me might bring it into focus a bit more.

I was thinking about the wide-spread slur that Tim Flannery predicted during the long drought that Sydney would run out of water in two years, or that it would never rain again.

Many of the people who recycle these statements presumably have not read the transcript they are based on and are just recycling what Bolt et al say. Others, including the originators, are such accomplished liars they have no problems at all with putting words into someone’s mouth that bear no relation to the truth. Nevertheless, some who engage in these debates like to quote these lines. When it is pointed out to them what was actually said they refuse to accept there is any difference, turning a conditional statement into a prediction.

What actually happened here was the Flannery actually said, “I’m personally more worried about Sydney than Perth.” In a radio interview he was pressed on the question of what was the worst case scenario. He said (sorry can’t find the link, would be grateful if anyone knows it) that Sydney could run out of water “if it doesn’t rain for two years”. Note that two letter word at the start.

The fury of the climate change deniers has led them to delegitimize the word “if” from debate. They will argue (see the comments thread here) that there is no difference between saying “If X happens then Y will follow” and “Y will happen” or even “X will happen.”

The problem is that when you spend too much time making this sort of brain-numbing claim it becomes difficult to do the basis strategic thinking required for planning in any complex system.

As many have noticed, the US Republicans and Australian Liberals have made themselves “The Party of Stupid”. This becomes self-reinforcing as intelligent people get driven away and stupid ones (in Australia at least in much lesser  numbers) recruited. What is not noticed so much is that the same process can make people of previously modest intelligent much stupider than they were, as they force their brains to rewire to justify the claims they are making.

I think the two ideas are, in some sense, the mirror images of each other. The approach my dream took is one that might bolster the thoughtfulness and subtlety of groups that are not too far gone. The one the flying monkeys use kills any trace of such thinking.


About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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