Reflections on society, politics and nature XXXXI

This is one in a series of posts with brief notes on society, politics, and nature. I sometimes include short personal notes as well. Click “read more” to see all the entries.

SCIENCE LITERACY & THEORIES

I saw a social media post stating that a theory in science is not “just a theory”, it’s proven by scientists and has become a “fact”. These types of statements make me cringe.

A theory in science is a question about the world. If it’s supported by data, it’s a question that scientists may explore further, build on, and so on. And as we get more data, the theory may be refined or replaced by another one.

It can never be “proven”. It’s never a “fact”. It just fits the data more or less well.

Theories live in an ecosystem. They live within an accepted general worldview. They fit in with a number of other theories. And so on.

There is also an informal hierarchy of theories. Some fit well the general worldview and the ecosystems of related theories, and they have been thoroughly tested through research and practical applications. These are widely accepted as fitting the data and what we know about how the world works. (Einsteins relativity theories are in this category.)

Some theories may not fit the data and are abandoned. And some may not fit the wider ecosystem so well, or there may be less or no solid data supporting it, so it’s on the sidelines for now. (Exemplified by Rupert Sheldrake’s research and ideas.)

That’s how science works these days. A widely accepted theory is widely accepted because it fits a huge amount of data and practical experience. It’s not “just” a theory, and it’s also very far from a “fact”. It’s a formalized question about the world that fits the data.

Of course, in real life, it’s not so clean. Scientists are people with their own worldviews, biases, and so on, so not everything going on in science is a hundred percent rational. But mostly, it works well.

THE PANDEMIC: DISTANCE TO OTHERS DOESN’T MATTER?

Reporters sometimes present things in black-and-white, perhaps to give the story more punch and be more interesting to the public. I see they also do it with pandemic-related stories, which is unfortunate.

For instance, yesterday in NRK – the public news channel in Norway – they had a story about how keeping your distance to others indoors doesn’t matter. The virus is in all the air in a room so it doesn’t matter if you are one or twenty meters away from the other person.

Yes, the virus will obviously go into all the air in the room eventually, it spreads out within some minutes just like smoke does. We already knew that. And that doesn’t mean that distance doesn’t matter. There will still be a higher concentration of virus if you stand in front of someone talking. Distance matters if you have a mask, and it especially matters if you don’t since that exposes you to the spit that inevitably comes out when people talk.

One doesn’t exclude the other.

REMEDIES FOR WHAT COLLECTIVELY AILS US

What mostly ails us these days, collectively?

In general, it’s perhaps the idea of separation, and short-term and small-picture thinking.

So what’s the remedy? Realizing our interconnectedness within our human community and as part of the Earth community, and longer-term and big-picture thinking.

How do we get there? It’s not easy to say. If we get there, it’s probably because we have to.

The consequences of our short-term and small-picture thinking will eventually become obvious and severe enough so we’ll need to collectively do something about it. And if we are to find lasting solutions, enough of us need to shift into long-term and big-picture thinking.

The consequences of the problems created from a certain mindset invite us to find a mindset that offers a solution. This new one will come with its own problems, and the process continues.

MISREPRESENTING STATISTICS

I see some form of misuse of statistics almost daily.

For instance, a podcast where a science journalist talks about his DNA results and said “they said 30% chance of red hair, so they got that wrong since I have red hair”. He repeated this for a series of traits. 30% means that 30 out of 100 with that genetic pattern have red hair, and he has red hair, so it’s not wrong. If the statistics had said 0% chance of red hair, it would be wrong, but not when it’s any number between 0.01% and 99.9%.

I also saw someone cite a study about BMI and health saying that higher BMI, including outside of the normal range, is healthy. Yes, the study may seem to suggest that. But it was a very general study, and they didn’t control for a range of important factors. Perhaps most importantly, they didn’t look at the direction of causality. They didn’t look to see if people who have a serious illness lose weight and then die, and then become part of this statistics. That’s very likely, and that’s enough to not jump to overly simple conclusions based on one very general study.

MEANINGLESS TO SAY ALL IS NATURE?

In an article on old forests, a Norwegian biologist said it’s meaningless to say that everything – including human culture – is nature. I understand that he, as a biologist, would see it that way. For him, taking a conventional view on biology, he is required to make that differentiation.

But it makes sense in other contexts.

It especially makes sense to say that all is nature when we want to highlight the (imagined, false) separation between human and nature, and that we are all expressions of the living system of Earth and the always evolving seamless system of this universe.

Whether we chose to use a particular differentiation comes down to context. In some situations, it’s helpful, and in other situations, it’s not. All dividing lines are lines in the sand, they are imagined.

A TRULY GREAT LIBRARY

Yes, a good library will contain literature on all sorts of subjects and written from a wide variety of viewpoints. That’s the essence of democracy. And it’s also the essence of a library – to have something for everyone and to represent the wild variety out there in society and in our culture.

A BIOPSYCHOSOCIAL APPROACH TO CFS

In a Norwegian social media group for people with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), I frequently see people disparaging a biopsychosocial approach to CFS.

I don’t quite understand. A biopsycho(eco)social approach just means we look at the whole human being in their social and physical/ecological environment, and look at causes and cures – and what worsens and supports healing – in all those areas. To me, it’s an approach that makes a lot of sense, and it would be irresponsible to not take a whole-systems approach to a complex and mysterious illness like CFS.

What they seem to refer to is an exclusively psychological approach to CFS. An approach that only sees psychological causes and cures for CFS. That’s a reductionistic approach to health and the opposite of a biopsychosocial approach.

In some ways, it doesn’t matter. Most people probably understand what they mean from the context. In other ways, it does matter what words we use and using them correctly.

WE HAVE X NUMBER OF YEARS LEFT?

I see people (still) saying we have X numbers of years left to save Earth and ecosystems and the world as we know it.

I don’t really understand why they choose to set a deadline. Is it a cheap strategy to get media attention? If so, that doesn’t make up for the many obvious downsides to this strategy.

People have been saying this for decades and we have already passed many of those deadlines. I assume most people hearing it are thinking: it’s just another guy crying wolf, many have said similar things in the past and we have already passed several of those deadlines, and we are still here.

Any deadline is arbitrary. The destruction is gradual so we can chose to set the deadline just about anywhere, going back to the beginning of civilization and into some indefinite future.

The destruction has many milestones and each one is important. Why chose one arbitrary milestone? Especially considering that each one typically happens over decades or centuries or millennia and cannot be pinned down to a particular year.

It seems much more helpful to describe what’s happening and the timeframe, and let people draw their own conclusions. And, of course, most do just that.

THE PANDEMIC MEASURES ARE TOO STRICT?

It’s obviously important to have a discussion about how we collectively can best deal with the pandemic, and especially discussions based in reason and solid data.

I see some being upset about measures they see as too strict, including here in Norway.

At the same time, we know what happened in countries where they didn’t take the pandemic seriously (Trump’s USA, Brazil, and now India). This is what quickly and easily can happen here and anywhere if we relax the measures too much.

I imagine that some of the same people now complaining about the current measures are the ones who would be up in arms if the government did less and we got a dramatic upswing in cases, overflowing hospitals, and seriously ill people turned away because there are no more beds, no more oxygen, and so on.

MAY 2, 20201

SUICIDAL REPUBLICANS

This is not at all new, but perhaps worth mentioning again.

The current US Republican strategy seems to be to (a) double down on racism, (b) double down on being out of touch with reality, and (c) double down on voter restriction. They intentionally appeal to white Christians, which is a group rapidly becoming proportionally smaller in the US. Most Republicans (70%) say that Biden stole the election, without a shred of evidence and in opposition to what all voting officials, judges, and so on are saying. And since they can’t easily win in a legitimate way anymore, they do whatever they can to prevent likely Democratic voters from voting (redistricting, new voting laws etc.).

It’s a desperate and suicidal strategy, and it’s not going to work in the long run – and perhaps not even in the short run. It’s a strategy out of touch with changing demographics, out of touch with reality, and out of touch with any sense of fairness or democratic values.

ANIMALS & BARBARIANS

These days, it can seem slightly amusing that the old Greeks called anyone outside of their cultural sphere barbarians. It’s common for us humans to think of outsiders as less than ourselves.

We still do it, and one are where it’s obvious is in how we see and treat animals.

Just as the old Greeks, we have one word for ourselves (humans) and one word for the Other (animals). This distinction in language reflects and reinforces a view of humans as fundamentally special and different from other animals, while the reality is that we are all animals and share a great deal.

How do we resolve this? One way is to explicitly call humans animals, or call other animals non-human animals. The first option, where we call ourselves animals, may feel slightly uncomfortable at first which highlights how we tend to see other animals as less than us. The second option is a bit clunky. But it’s a start.

We can also call different beings two-legged, four-legged, winged, and so on, which is a bit more neutral and poetic.

In any case, we are in a phase where more people seem to be aware of this, and there is more and more research highlighting the commonality between humans and our cousins and more distant relatives.

In order to survive long term, it may well be that we have to include all beings in our circle of “us”. We are all in this together. Distinctions are helpful, but any ideas of fundamental dividing lines are fantasies.

REPORTING ON PROTESTS

When mainstream media report on protests, they often get it wrong. This is not anything new, of course, and I have seen it since my early teens.

For instance, over the last few days, police have killed dozens of peaceful protesters in Colombia. NRK – the main news source in Norway – reports that the protests are about taxes, and they make it sound selfish and trivial.

The reality is, of course, different. In reality, the protests are about the systematic abuse of power and violation of human rights. It’s about entrenched corruption, police violence, paramilitary violence, and all of it protected by the current government.

Why does mainstream media tend to trivialize protests? Is it because the reporters haven’t done their job and don’t know what they write about? Is it because they have a bias against protesters? Is it because they can’t understand that people often have a good and justified reason to protest? Whatever the reason, the outcome is that the media in these cases justify and protect the status quo.

MULTI-PLANETARY SPECIES

I see some creating a false choice between mars explorations and eventual colonialization on the one hand, and sustainability and taking care of Earth on the other.

We don’t have to chose between one or the other. We can do both.

As Carl Sagan and others (Musk) have talked about, becoming a multi-planetary species makes us far more resilient. It makes sense of our own long-term survival. It’s also inevitable if we continue to have a civilization that can support technology and technological advances.

It also makes sense from another perspective. From the perspective of Earth as a whole, and as a living system, space exploration and putting people on Mars is a step towards Earth reproducing. In a very real sense, and in this context, we function as the reproductive organs for Earth.

The offspring won’t be exactly like Earth, but it will be a way for Earth to reproduce and continue its living systems in another form and on and as another planet.

MAY 9, 2021

SCOTTISH INDEPENDENCE

I find it ironic that some of the same people who supported Britain leaving the European Union, now are against Scotland leaving the British union. EU allowed Britain to leave the EU, so Britain will have to allow Scotland to leave their union.

The British people knew well the possible consequences of Brexit even before the 2016 vote. They knew it very likely meant reduced trade with the EU, very likely problems and conflicts in Northern Ireland, and a good possibility of a unified Ireland and Scotland leaving Britain.

They also knew that Brexit very likely would isolate and weaken Britain, and if Scottish independence gains majority support because of Brexit, then that’s just another step in that process.

NATURE DOESN’T CARE ABOUT OUR FANTASIES

Not that many have died in Norway from the Coronavirus so far, perhaps because most people are relatively sane and responsible and follow the guidelines.

One of those who died happened to be a conspiracy theorist on a crusade against the pandemic measures and even the existence of a pandemic. Apparently, he was convinced that there was no pandemic, no virus, and no need to take any precautions.

Predictably, he got the virus. And he became one of those who died from it.

This is a reminder that reality doesn’t care about our fantasies. The virus doesn’t care one iota what ideas we have about it.

The further away from reality we stray, the more likely reality is to bite us.

One of the most obvious collective examples today is our economic system which is based on the fantasy of unlimited natural resources, and unlimited capacity of nature to absorb human-made products (toxins etc.). This is a fantasy that’s creating huge real-life problems.

MAKE THE US GREAT AGAIN?

It’s pretty obvious, I wrote about it several years ago, and it’s a bit outdated for now since Trump is gone from the presidency, but it may be worth revisiting.

What does “make US great again” mean?

It clearly means to make the US great for white people, and a certain segment of white people. It means to try to make the US fit some fantasy about how it was at some point in the past.

In reality, the US was never great for huge segments of the population.

After the Europeans came to North-America, it was never very great for the people who already lived there. Is genocide great? Setting out to destroy the culture of large numbers of people? Huge numbers dying of disease brought by Europeans?

Was the US great for slaves brought there from Africa? Was it great for the ones tortured, abused, and killed just because they happened to not be white? Was it great for all the ones experiencing systematic racism, and still do?

Was it great for women who were not allowed to vote? Or had to submit to their husbands? Or couldn’t have the education and career they wanted just because they happened to not be men?

Was the US great in the eyes of all the people around the world suffering because of US cultural, economic, and military imperialism? Was it great for the people in Iran when the US disposed of a democratically elected leader, making way for a dictatorship? Was it great for the people in a number of countries where the same happened?

Was the US great for the ecosystems destroyed by European settlers and their descendants?

The list goes on and on. It seems incomprehensible to me that anyone can say that the US was ever great, and also that they want to make the US “great again”. When was it ever great? And for who?

The only time I can see that it was “great” was before the Europeans came and there was a relatively small number of people living there, and the ecosystems flourished. Even then, it was not a paradise for many of the ones living there.

LACK OF MATURITY IN US MOVIES & SERIES

I have watched a few episodes of For All Mankind, and although I love the visuals, setting, and alternate and more inclusive history, I also notice something else.

It’s as if much of it is written from a teenage mentality, and the dialog and action of many of the characters seem immature and not what you would find among professionals.

This is something I have noticed in several other US movies and series, and we can also see it in the general US culture – with Trump supporters unhinged from reality, conspiracy theories, and so on.

As others have pointed out, it’s as if a good portion of the US culture value immaturity.

I noticed this when I was there as well. For instance, I saw behavior among some university students that was consistently more immature than anything I had ever seen in Norway in any age group.

There are of course many exceptions, both in fiction and in real life.

Note: I watched a few more episodes of For All Mankind and it’s getting slightly better but I still cringe from the dialog, acting, and some of the storyline. I have also seen some episodes of The First which is much better written, has better actors and directors, and doesn’t have this problem. There is an irony in that the relatively poorly written For All Mankind got several seasons, while the much higher quality The First got canceled after one season. I suspect it’s because the former has more crowd-pleasers (explosions, conflict, immaturity) and the latter is far more mature, intelligent, and quiet.

VACCINES AND RISK

The most effective way to stop the pandemic is obviously to vaccinate enough people.

Still, some are hesitant or outright opposed to be vaccinated.

Some of these do it because they are aware of the risk and the possible side-effects, and others because they are caught up in harebrained conspiracy theories.

I have a little more understanding for the first group, although also wonder about the process they use to arrive at their conclusion.

Everything is risky. To be alive is inherently risky. The possible side effects of some of the vaccines are real and some are serious (leading to death), but they happen to only a very few people. We all do a lot that’s far more risky, and we already accept that risk. So why not accept the risk of the vaccine?

Looking at the numbers, there is no comparison. It’s far more risky to get the actual virus. Although most get it relatively mildly, a significant percentage become seriously ill and even die, and it’s impossible to predict in advance who that will be. It can be any one of us. In addition, there is a pandemic within and following this pandemic, and that’s the long Covid. Again, we cannot predict who will get these long-lasting and debilitating after-effects. (I personally have two close friends who got the virus at the beginning of the pandemic and still are seriously impacted by it.)

It’s well known that most people are very poor at evaluating risk and seeing it perspective. The numbers are out there, so it’s up to each one of us to put it in perspective and look at the bigger picture.

Note: The video above reminded me to write this post. I know it’s downplaying the serious side-effects of some vaccines, mostly because they talk about Pfizer and Moderna and these have fewer of those cases than, for instance, Astra-Zeneca. When there are so few cases, it’s also difficult to say if it’s just a correlation in time or actual causality. It does seem that a very small number of people have serious reactions to the AZ vaccine, which is why it’s not used in several European countries. And yet, even if it is used, the risk is likely smaller than the risk of getting in the car to get to the vaccination center.

LISTENING TO THE EXPERTS

If have written about this before, but thought I would revisit it.

For important things in life, most people chose to go to an expert. If my car breaks down, I take it to a car mechanic. If I need surgery, I go to a surgeon. If I want to send up a satellite, I go to rocket engineers.

The more important it is, and the bigger the stakes, the more likely it is that we go to an expert.

So why not do the same in a pandemic? Why not listen to the epidemiologists?

Why do some seek out experts in less important areas of life, and when it comes to a literal life-and-death situation like a pandemic, they chose to listen to random people on the internet instead of epidemiologists?

Why do they disagree with the advice from epidemiologists and think they – having no real knowledge or background in the topic – know better?

It’s easy to see what happens if we don’t follow the advice of epidemiologists in a pandemic. We can look at what happened in the USA under Trump, and what’s currently happening in Brasil under Bolsonaro and India under Modi.

Still, some people in countries with stricter measures, and consequently lower numbers of infected and dead, complain when their government follows the advice of epidemiologists. They complain that the measures are too strict.

Would they rather that their country is like Brasil and India with huge numbers of infected and dead, overflowing hospitals, and sick people turned away and dying when they could have been saved if the hospitals still had capacity?

This fits a familiar pattern: People benefit from certain policies, that privilege makes them blind to how it is to not have it, and in their immaturity and lack of perspective, they want to do away with the policies that benefited them and others. These days, we see this pattern play out with people who benefit from governments taking the pandemic seriously, and then criticize these governments for taking too strict measures. And we see it with people who hugely benefit from decades of mass vaccinations, and now refuse to take vaccines.

COLLECTIVE TRAUMA & THE US AND ISRAEL

A good portion of culture, traditions, ideas, politics, and so on is trauma behavior.

We see it in many countries today, including in internal and foreign policies and actions.

The disregard for civil discourse, reality, and taking care of each other that we see in the US today is trauma behavior, as is much of the US foreign policy and huge investments in the military.

The Israeli treatment of Arabs and the Palestinians is another example. These are the views and actions of a traumatized and scared people. It doesn’t justify their actions, but it is a central factor and it’s important to take it into account.

TRANSFORMING NATIONALISM

Independence day – May 17 – is coming up in Norway. And although there isn’t too much overt nationalism in Norway, what’s here and that tendency is worth acknowledging and taking a look at.

The nationalism that doesn’t resonate with me is the one that excludes others. The one that says Norway is inherently better or more important than other countries, that sees Norwegian culture as inherently better or more important, or that wants to marginalize people from other cultures who live here.

So how can I celebrate May 17 in a way that feels right for me?

I can find genuine gratitude for having grown up here and for being here now. I love the nature. I love much of the culture and traditions. I love the current diversity.

For me, celebrating the national day is about gratitude.

CONQUER A MOUNTAIN?

I heard someone use the term “conquer a mountain”. It’s obviously quite old-fashioned and not something many say today, but it does say something about the traditional European mindset.

If we climb on top of a mountain, how is that conquering it? We may as well say that a speck of dust landing on an elephant has conquered the elephant.

If anything, climbing a mountain requires us to respect nature, learn to work with it, and do it on nature’s terms. It shows us how small we are. At most, we are temporarily “conquering” our own limitations.

Of course, our huge numbers combined with current technology is dramatically impacting the Earth. And here too, we are not conquering anything. We are defeating ourselves and future generations.

The idea of conquering a mountain, or nature in general, reflects a certain mindset. One where we see ourselves as separate from nature, threatened by nature, and where we benefit from subduing and defeating nature. This may have worked to some extent in the past, but it doesn’t work anymore.

What will help us now is recognizing we are part of nature, embedded in natural systems, and that we need to learn to function within these systems without damaging them. We need to become more like mountain climbers, respect and study nature, and learn to live our lives on nature’s terms.

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