Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Don't be a Statistic

Two years ago I was diagnosed with cancer. According medical statistical data, given the particular cell type and the stage of the disease when it was discovered, I have better than a 70% chance of still being here three years from now—pretty good odds if I was betting on a sporting event, but they provide little comfort when the wager is pain and death.Indeed, I have a hard time grasping what a 70% chance actually means, how it is supposed to fit into my actual experience. As a tool to help me understand my situation, “70%” has very little traction; it is just a number.I know that it is better than “50%” and not nearly as good as “90%.” I know that for every 100 people in my position, 30 are doomed. But I don’t know 99 other people in my position, and no matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to partition hope and dread into the appropriate emotional ratio.  Three years from now I won’t be seventy percent alive or thirty percent dead.        

Our evolved cognitive machinery has only a limited capacity to deal with numerical information. We are good with countable frequencies because it was necessary to compare the size of the antelope herd in the valley to the north with the size of the herd in the valley to the south. We are reasonably good with simple fractions because it was necessary to know how to divide the antelope carcass into equitable portions for distribution—however, a recent study found that people do not mentally represent fractions in terms of their actual numeric quantities; instead, we tend to compare the relative difference between the countable integers that comprise the numerator and the denominator (the numerator is the herd in the valley to the north. . .). We are not so good with irrational numbers or with frequencies in the millions. In fact, our cognitive machinery is entirely unable to grasp large numbers as anything other than abstraction. Small countable integers such as fifteen have real-world meaning for us. Fifteen million is entirely outside of our first-person experience; it is an abstraction with no possible concrete experiential referent.

Statistical abstractions are likewise not part of our concrete experience. No one has ever seen an average or held a standard deviation. Percentages and proportions other than those that can be distilled to very simple fractions register only in terms of a sense of relative “bigness” or “smallness.” And too often these statistical concepts are applied to events that are themselves abstractions entirely absent of any concrete reality. The following news bite is emblematic:

There has been a 3.8% increase in private sector growth during the last quarter.

The private sector is an economic abstraction. And the notion that an economic entity can grow is pure metaphor. A 3.8% increase in the yearly metaphoric growth of an abstraction is a conceptual black hole. A 3.8% increase in the yearly (actual) growth of something entirely concrete, a tree for instance, is quite beyond any kind of experiential grasp. There is nothing in my concrete experience that I could point to that corresponds to a 3.8% increase in the amount of new tree being added this year. I can see the tree is growing. And if I was patient and attentive, I could probably tell the difference between a tree that is experiencing a 3.8% increase in its rate of growth and one that is experiencing a 10% increase if the two trees were growing side by side. And, again, if I was paying close attention, I could probably tell when a given tree is experiencing a substantial decrease in its rate of growth as compared to the year before. But 3.8% of an increase is just a number; and 3.8% of an increase in the growth of an economic abstraction is a mere rhetoric, if not outright propaganda.

I don't mean to deny the usefulness of statistical abstractions as conceptual tools. However, they are ultimately abstractions that have no actual referent in our concrete experience. And as abstract conceptual tools, they are functional only within a specific kind of conceptual framework. 

It is this latter quality of statistics that concerns me the most: the fact that even though they are not properties of the universe itself, they are nonetheless being used as tools to shape our understanding of that universe, framing our experience in ways that trivialize or completely ignore core features of our humanity in the process.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Fear and Hobbes

Global empire runs on fear, and a general state of anxiety and uncertainty undergirds all civilized society.  Fear and anxiety keeps people in line and provides a substrate through which commercial advertisers, politicians, and government propagandists ply their power.

There is a fundamental irony at work here: a blindly accepted benefit of civilization is that it alleviates much of the fear and uncertainty that are assumed to be basic facts of life in non-civilized society.

Even the most oblique suggestion that civilization is not in our best interest is commonly met with an immediate and reflexive anti-primitive reaction. Regardless of how bad things get with civilization, the alternative is always much, much worse.

Blame Hobbes.

Modern civilization apologists, who invariably adopt a version of the Hobbesian approach, have an insurmountable logical problem that Hobbes did not. In Hobbes’ time, it was generally accepted that the world was only a few thousand years old, and that the human species was most likely a product of holy contrivance. Thanks (perhaps also ironically) to the findings of a product of civilization called empirical science, the world is several orders of magnitude older now, and the emergence of humans no longer requires divine forethought.  

And it’s that fact—that from the perspective of evolutionary time civilization is something brand new—that provides the logical barrier: how to account for millions of years of human flourishing in the absence of civilized order if life in the absence of civilization was rife with death and strife?

Even if we allow for a moderately-high birth rate (unlikely in band society), given the global population prior to the agricultural revolution, and the typical size of a hunter-gatherer band, humans would have gone extinct almost immediately through lack of replacement if death from infant mortality, predators, war, starvation, and disease was as ubiquitous as Hobbesian mythology suggests.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Industrial ill-logic

The solution to any problem is to add more of whatever is causing the problem. If a government agency is mired in bureaucracy, form another subcommittee. If freedom and liberty are threatened, add restrictions and increase security. If our privacy is being eroded, what we obviously need is better surveillance systems.

And when it comes to the problems caused directly by technology, the solution is ALWAYS additional technology.

Consider the problem of dying honeybees.  “Colony collapse disorder” is caused both directly and indirectly by technology: directly through the use of immunotoxic pesticides, and indirectly through a variety of effects of industrial farming, including simple habitat loss.  The solution? 

Wait for it…

Tuesday, August 6, 2013


Let’s play a quick game of tic tac toe. 

Manning (X)

Snowden (X)

A sudden “high alert” in response to specific “intelligence” (gathered through illegal but somehow secretly legal privacy-violating techniques) about a nonspecific terrorist attack by unspecified perpetrators on an unspecified target at some unspecified date in the near or medium-near or otherwise not too far-off future (X) 

Seems like there should be a couple Os in there someplace.

Most “citizens” of USAcorp are too stupefied by consumer spectacle to care about the government periscope being rammed up their ass. But those few who are a bit more sensitive to privacy issues were starting to make noise about the NSA probing their private bits (and bytes and phone records and music preferences and internet searches for deals on pressure cookers). Can’t have that. Can’t have people suggesting that their right to privacy trumps USAcorp’s need for total access.

Nothing like a little manufactured, media-magnified fear mongering to get people to bend over and beg for it. Remember the post 9/11 anthrax threat? The plastic and duct tape on the windows? 

Be afraid, be very afraid, unspecified intelligence sources engaged in unspecified surveillance have picked up…chatter!  Chatter? Holy shit! Look out! The Al Qaeda are out there and they are planning something big and nasty. We don’t know what or when or where or how or who. Thank god the NSA was there doing what it does, or we would really be in a world of hurt. 

If there is a terrorist attack someplace, anyplace, sometime in the next few weeks (months?), then that is direct and irrefutable proof that the NSA needs to do what it does to warn us ahead of time. If there is not a terrorist attack someplace, anyplace, sometime in the next few weeks (months?), then that is irrefutable proof that the NSA needs to do what it does in order to prevent terrorist attacks.

Up periscope!