Thoughts on Complicated Issues

Dealing with complicated issues is a complicated issue. I find that it is impossible for a non-expert to rationally debate a complicated issue. Instead, it all comes down to belief.

Take global warming, for instance. There are people in the world who have spent their lives studying this: climatologists. As scientists (the real climatologists anyway) they posit a theory, test it against empirical evidence, publish the results, and let their peers (other real climatologists) analyze, critique, and collectively approve or reject it. The Wikipedia article references a separate page that cites hundreds of scientific organizations who collectively agree that the world is warming overall, the climatological system is changing, and that these changes are attributable to human activities. More conclusive, though, is that aside from four groups who stand by non-committal statements, "no scientific body of national or international standing has maintained a dissenting opinion" (the last was the American Association of Petroleum Geologists who updated their stance in 2007 with a non-committal statement.)

However, I am not a climatologist by any means. As such, I'm left to judge by belief alone: I believe that climatologists have studied this issue and agreed that humans are causing climate change, and that these climatologists do not have sufficient ulterior motives to lie. I don't think it's possible to predict exactly how these changes will manifest themselves, but as a believer that humans are well-suited to the current climatological situation, I can't see any change being likely to give advantage to us — almost all climatological changes will be unpleasant to our situation.

Some people choose instead to believe what they hear through the media, or from someone they respect (regardless of their true expertise as a climatologist), or from a celebrity or public figure, or from their personal experience, or from their non-climatological-expert analysis. Some believe much more strongly in the predictions than the assessment. But in all those differences, people are trying to debate with insufficient information. Belief is irrational and can't be debated: all that can be done is to explain one's rationale and listen to another's rationale and decide for yourself whether you want to change your mind.

Health care, on the other hand, has three sets of experts: one for the health facet, one for the money facet, and one for the moral facet: I have not encountered rigorous scientific analysis from any group, nor on the system as a whole. Doctors (while their medical practice is scientifically based) can only say that most people will live a comfortable life and may need temporary corrective care to maintain that, that any corrective effort is exponentially less severe the earlier it is started, and that a few people will require more constant care to permit a comfortable existence. Insurance companies and nations with nationalized health systems provide data indicating cost; as best I can tell, any system has approximately the same cost across its whole population. Finally, philosophers can provide the moral facet by asking, "is health valuable?" The answer transcends the other two groups as doctors' Hippocratic oath implicitly declares it so, and it is certainly a lucrative proposition as no parent would keep any wealth or a specific possession in preference to their child's life and health.

Without the benefit of a quality analysis, we are left to muddle through argument without full knowledge, again leaning on belief. Do we have more faith in government or corporations (as if they are different masters)? Should we help strangers? Will people we don't know exploit our generosity? Would we be willing to watch our own child die? Would we wish that on someone else?

My point of this exercise is to say that we all select where we get our knowledge and we use our beliefs to decide which knowledge informs our decisions. Implicit in that statement is my own belief that rational, reasoned discourse is the superior form of changing opinions.


TEDx Rochester

I know I've mentioned TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design): Ideas Worth Spreading quite a few times already, so when I heard there would be an independently-originated series here in Rochester, I couldn't help but go. They called it TEDx Rochester and held it at Geva (75 Woodbury Blvd.) My hopes were high, but I fully understood that not every lecturer would produce an astoundingly favorite lecture.

After a rocky start with the A/V system, Adam Frank got things started. He spoke about the artificiality of the conflict of science and religion. Basically his argument was that science enhances religion because it lets us see more of the world, and if you're a believer in a creator, seeing more of what was created is a good thing.

Larry Moss was next, speaking about his "Airigami": creating art with balloons. At first blush, the whole thing seems as thin as a metaphor using balloons would be if written here. But because the medium he uses is so accessible, he's able to create sculptures with people who don't even share a common language — and he has. Many times. On the one hand, it's astounding and on another, obvious. Definitely one to think about (and hopefully, a lecture that will be prominent on TED's own website).

I was also pleased by a performance by GEOMANTICS Dance Theatre who, like PUSH Physical Theatre, used an amalgam of the varied forms of physical performance to express ideas.

A nano-scale chemist and physicist Todd D. Krauss provided insight into some of his work (as several other lecturers did). Although I didn't find that his talk met my lofty expectation of an "idea worth spreading", he did bring up an interesting bit of new technology: cadmium-selenium nanoparticles. The fascinating thing about them is that they fluoresce different colors of light based on their size. As such, one can create whatever colors they want using the same material.

What he did not touch on that I wish he had was the ramifications of nanoparticles and organic life: specifically, isn't "little particles stuck through cell walls" one of those triggers for cancer? And while he dispelled the myth that artificially-intelligent nanobots will kill us, I think he did a disservice by neglecting to even approach the topic of nanoparticles doing damage in much more banal ways.

Finishing up the night was Geva Comedy ImprovMySpace link who, sadly, were not able to finish their performance in the time allotted.

Overall it was definitely worth it to take time off to see it. But I hope that in the future, things are a bit more refined.


Doubt at the Little

Ali and I went to The Little (240 East Ave.) to see Doubt. It's a fascinating film which, although obviously different from the play (which neither of us saw), is extremely strong. I suppose it could only help that the film was written and directed by the original playwright, John Patrick Shanley. The story primarily follows Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the minister of St. Nicholas in the Bronx in 1964, and Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), the principal of the affiliated school. Flynn takes an interest in one of the students: Donald Muller — a black boy in an otherwise all-white school. Sister Aloysius fully believes Flynn molested Donald and intends to ensure he [Flynn — duh] is punished.

The audience is left to their own beliefs to ascertain whether Flynn molested Donald. I found this fascinating, as I maintained his innocence throughout the film but realized afterward that I could experience the film again completely differently by believing he was guilty.

Sister Aloysius is someone who would act to destroy based on their beliefs. I think it's a particular kind of logic that permits this: believing that one's belief alone is more true than having no factual basis — perhaps a manifestation of the nature of faith (although in the case of religious faith, it's more about filling a gap in that which is knowable). The trouble is, there is an element of circular justification: if she succeeds in destroying Flynn's reputation, she feels justified, but by putting her own reputation on the line in making such an accusation, she has no choice but to fight to destroy Flynn's reputation no matter whether he was guilty or not.

Sister James, meanwhile, acts as a foil to Sister Aloysius by believing in the kindness of others. Sister Aloysius' long-time experience as disciplinarian provides her only with evidence of sin and wrongdoing. So is it Sister James' naiveté or Sister Aloysius' limited perspective that is at fault?

For myself, I find that when factual evidence is not available, belief in kindness is the more fruitful path. As is the case with Sister Aloysius, believing more in evil makes you a destructive force in the world whereas believing more in good opens up the possibility of being constructive.

But equally important is that it makes you happier to believe that people are generally kind.