Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Results Guaranteed - Free Recast.

In the 2012 Fall Sellers update eBay banned a list of items from being traded on their site. This included home businesses and recipes. It also included Psychic and Tarot readings, Spells and Potions. EBay gave the following reason for the prohibitions ; “Transactions in these categories often result in issues between the buyer and seller that are difficult to resolve.

Now having twice been ripped off through eBay (buying a tent and phone rather than spells) I definitely don’t want to endorse this company or accidentally advertise them. What I want to do is explore how eBay’s ultimately practical rather than philosophical decision has anything to do with hot topics like “freedom of religion” or “the division of science and religion”.

When I learnt about eBay’s decision (from this site) I recalled wandering into a new age fair a few years ago. At that fair people sold a range of items which made different claims. Some were very specific. One item was a crystal which when attached to your phone reduced the electromagnetic radiation from said phone.  

This is a fairly clear example of a “scientific” claim because it is what scientists and philosophers refer to as “falsifiable”. I can measure the electromagnetic radiation output before attaching a crystal to my phone and after. It is possible, if certain measurements are obtained, that I can say that the crystal does not reduce the electromagnetic radiation (or if it does, it does so as much as any stray pebble stuck to a phone would). That capacity to evidentially disclaim a statement or “falsification” is one of the central principles of science.

By contrast a claim made at another stall was that their particular brand of very expensive colour therapy would enhance my mood. That’s a much harder to falsify claim. No matter how depressed I might be despite using colour therapy, my therapist could argue that I would’ve been still more depressed without their therapy. It’s fairly hard to prove otherwise. One way to do that is to conduct large scale trials of people using the “proper” colour therapy and compare them with people using a placebo version of colour therapy (just random colours which are said to be the real deal) while maintaining a third control group who receive no therapy at all. Certain measurements of happiness, well-being and health (such as higher scores in the control or placebo groups) would be able to at least weaken the claim that this colour therapy enhances mood. 

While it is also true for the phone crystal it’s easier to see with the colour therapy that we could encounter disagreements about measurement which confound any proof of efficacy. What exactly is an enhanced mood? Is self-reporting an adequate way to find out about it? As I argued in the post Measure Me, measurement of some kind is crucial to science but also to any meaningful critical conversation. Measurement is how we evaluate. As a consumer on eBay or at a new age fair then taking responsibility for your spending means not allowing the seller to define how results are measured. It’s your money and you are evaluating the product so you get to decide what an enhanced mood means to you. If the seller tries to avoid any definition, preferring to keep it so vague it can’t be measured, (or if they claim that only they have the special tool or skill to measure the effect of their therapy or product) then I would quickly walk away.

What also makes the colour therapy’s claims hard to falsify is the level of complexity involved in its method. Treatments and interventions which are based on very solid science still have wildly divergent effectiveness between controlled and real life settings. In controlled trials the birth control pill is effective at reducing pregnancy. In the real world it has less effectiveness among some populations (ie. people with poor memory or chaotic lives) because regularly remembering to take any pill is harder for them. What this means is that if a person reports a negative outcome from using a complex therapy, their deviation from the instructions can be to blame for the failure rather than the therapy (as performed perfectly) being to blame itself.

This problem with complexity can be exploited if I want to make a therapy immune to being properly tested. If a therapy is so complex that there is always something to go wrong then any negative results can be dismissed. It’s a way of hiding bad data, which renders your claim unfalsifiable while it still sounds falsifiable (and thus still scientifically credible). We’re usually wise to this however. If a therapy sounds too complex to complete correctly we guess we will fail it and so don’t buy it.

The real trick is to add complexity that still sounds achievable. The easiest way to do this is to introduce an immeasurable user component as an essential part of the therapy. The classic choice is faith (or “winners attitude”) in the outcome. Faith is impossible to self-measure because you can’t ever view your own from outside it. You have to inhabit faith for there to be any faith. Yet you have to drop faith in order to ever say if the therapy has succeeded or failed. That creates a catch 22 which ensures the therapy only fails when the user fails it by withdrawing their faith to say “hey this is not working”. Everyone who succeeds proves the therapy. Everyone who doesn’t has no impact on the results because they eventually lost faith and thus didn’t complete the treatment.

Not all claims make any attempt to be falsifiable. The claim that a lamp will beautify your home is not falsifiable. There is no universal measurement of beauty that would allow me to disprove that statement. Or rather I can disprove it easily for myself just by looking at the lamp but as it’s a matter of taste I can’t generalize from my experience to you. That’s why ebay doesn’t have any problem with a lamp that’s as ugly as sin being sold as attractive. It’s spin and we all ought to know it’s spin and check the lamp for ourselves. Mind you, if the lamp is not pictured then a buyer may assume that there is a generally accepted standard of attractive being referred to. The buyer may assume that saying the lamp is attractive is actually a falsifiable claim. A few philosophers might agree with them by arguing that beauty is objective rather than opinion, but I wouldn’t. I'd say, “Pics please”.

What eBay has done by prohibiting metaphysical products such as spells and potions, is to remove an area where we generally hear claims as falsifiable but they regularly aren’t. A potion or spell tends to say things like “you will attract money into your life” or “you will cause someone to fall in love with you”. Some of their claims are harder to falsify such as “your sex life will improve” or “increases courage” and some are impossible such as “cleansing an aura” but even there spells and potions sound like they are promising specific benefits with measurable outcomes. However all the tricks of obscured measurement, complexity and reliance on faith are in employ to create non-falsifiable claims masquerading as falsifiable ones. This is what is called Pseudo-science.

A very interesting question is how much of all religion and theology is a similar pseudo-science itself. We can easily put certain faith healing and holy amulet purchasing into that category. They make clearly falsifiable sounding claims that work just like spells. However does theology come with the promise that studying it will bring you closer to God? Is that also an ultimately untestable claim (who measures it) that still sounds falsifiable? Does prayer come with the guarantee of results but only if your faith is strong? Is prayer then ultimately a form of pseudo science too? And if we can ask these questions of theology and prayer what about philosophy? Does it come with a promised outcome? Of what though; Wisdom?, Truth?

Against the position that religion and philosophy should be condemned as pseudo-science is the criticism that science shouldn’t be allowed to be such a totalizing paradigm that everything is subjected to its way of thinking. Science is also increasingly wedded to a consumer attitude to the world as it serves to evaluate products for our purchase. The world view of a scientific consumer is a cultural phenomenon and we should be asking ourselves whether we want everything to be evaluated within it. Perhaps a lot is lost if we do.

To me the resolution to this argument lies in identifying what territory you are attempting to occupy with your claims. When spells and prayers and readings and the like put themselves up on eBay they are very clearly entering into a commercial marketplace. Marketplaces are not wild territories without rules but have standards of communication and definition. Consumers have socially constructed rights. If you expect to advance your theology or philosophy in a commercial marketplace then you can’t get all huffy about such rights infringing on your religious expression. Those marketplace rules have to apply to everyone precisely in order to define a marketplace. You’re happy after all that they apply to your own purchases of electrical goods for example.

Similarly science is a space with socially constructed rights and rules. Opinion is not evidence. People have the right to know your methods and repeat your experiments. Definitions of measurement must be published with results. Beliefs must ultimately be able to be overturned based on results. If religion, theology and philosophy don’t want to play by these rules then that is perfectly legitimate. There is argument for validity outside of the culture of science just as all life shouldn’t be contained by commercial culture. Maybe your religion ought to be non-scientific.

However you can’t make use of the cultural weight of science for religious claims and assert a special religious exemption from its rules. To do so would negate what science is; where all claims must follow the same rules. If you claim to have proof of a magical outcome or make clearly falsifiable sounding claims then it is dishonest to object to the standards of proof and falsifiability that give those terms meaning. Ultimately you ought to admit that you are not scientific if you are not going to be. If you don’t, then it’s incumbent on those following the rules to ask you to leave. This is all eBay did in regard to metaphysical products like spells.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Magic Books

Certain books are magic. That is to say, their words are unchallengeable. If a statement is made in a magic book it can be absolutely relied upon to be truth, by virtue of its inclusion in the book – there is no need for further substantiation. That’s the book’s magic.

Books that claim to be magic are usually channeled. Their author is not the mook whose name is on the cover but an other-worldly source, like an alien or angel, who writes through the author. There are many modern forms of this type of book. “Seth Speaks” and “A Course in Miracles” are the only ones I’ve held in my hand but Wikipedia has a comprehensive list.  An older example of this would be the Qur’an which was technically written by Mohammed but has classically been understood by Muslims as being dictated to him by the Angel Gabriel. Sometimes a magic book is found intact and merely translated under divine guidance as in the Book of Mormon but the principle is the same – the author, however forensics might identify them, is not the real author.

Older magic books also need to base their authority on a miraculous preservation of their text. There must be a force usually unidentifiable to science or historical investigation that ensures that only the right translation, the correct editing and even the only legitimate formation of a canon of texts from a broad selection occurs. If certain portions are lost then this is usually not permitted to create a gap in a magic book – those losses are equally meant to be. At least I can’t think of a magic book which is considered incomplete. When a new book that could be placed in the Jewish Bible/Old Testament was did not make it into either. What we have of the Apostle Paul’s letters is generally considered sufficient although we only have silence from those he wrote to. There are no gaps.

I should be very careful however before I label the Christian Bible, The Qur’an or Jewish Scriptures as magic books. Not everybody who holds these texts in high respect consider them in that fashion. Many Christians, Muslims and Jews recognize the humanity of their scripture’s authorship and accept its errancy. Others view them like incomplete poetry meant to inspire rather than clearly instruct – sort of magical but not in the exact sense I mean here.

But many do believe they possess the qualities of a magic book. They believe that any statement of their holy book is true, by virtue of its inclusion in their book. These people would accept that the real author of their scripture is God (or an Angel of God at least) and merely published via channeling through human hands.  These people would also believe that some type of magical preservation ensures that the copy of their scripture in their hand (possibly even a translation) is absolutely how it is meant to be.

For these people scripture is the unchallengeable last word in any discussion. There is no getting behind it or around it because its credibility is unassailable. These people are not necessarily literalists or fundamentalists. Literalists believe there is only one obvious interpretation of scripture – all scripture is considered to be like the history channel ought to be, factual and concrete. Literalists believe their magic book only includes the genre of straight reportage.

Christians, Jews and Muslims who believe they possess a magic book also include non-literalists who would tolerate a lot of discussion about the correct interpretation of their scriptures. They would accept that creation accounts may not be scientific accounts and even that later events may not be all historical (the book of Jonah for example). However they would maintain that this doesn’t change the moral authority of scripture. In what sometimes seems to be an act of double-think they hold that while some scriptural accounts are metaphorical stories they can still be used as the absolute final word in any argument. They are believed to tell a “deep truth” that is more important than their surface untruth.

Having a magic book whether of the literal kind or the kind that takes a bit of interpretation is obviously quite handy. With it many arguments can be quickly or at least ultimately resolved. However how do we know if a book is really magic? Having the wrong magic book could be quite dangerous. Who can say what might come out of following the Seth Material if it isn’t sound advice “The fact remains that there are probable past events that can "still happen" within your personal previous experience. A new event can literally be born in the past -- "now.".” Time paradoxes abound.

Some people are inclined to dismiss all magic books out of hand. Postmodernists don’t believe that there is a fundamental moral truth that any author or editor (even a magical one) could write down. Postmodernists would hold that the Seth Material even if it is channeled from Seth could only ever contain Seth’s opinions about absolute truth– not absolute truth itself. Similarly an Existentialist might argue that no magic book allows us to abdicate our moral responsibility to make our own decisions. Even if the Universes’ Creator has pruned the Christian Bible to perfection, blindly following its text commits the moral horror of rendering ourselves automatons.

For those of us who don’t consider a magic book an impossibility or an irrelevance it’s worth giving the question “How can we tell if a book is magic or not?” serious consideration. We want to be sure we have the right one. I think there are three tests we can apply. The first two are fairly logical, however the third is not and yet it’s the one I most use.

Firstly we generally consider that truth is consistent with itself. That’s an interesting assumption that I’ve yet to properly investigate. What it would mean, if we accept this assumption, is that if a book contradicts itself it is not able to be a magic book; all of its statements can’t be true. This can be a first test. However when applying this test we need to be careful. Some statements seem contradictory when they’re not i.e. My pants are red and my pants are black are not contradictory if my pants are red and black striped.

Uncovering contradictions in the Christian Bible for example is definitely not a straightforward task. Literalists face a contradiction in the two accounts in Genesis of creation, however non-literalists are not at all confounded by that because the “deep truth” that we are created by God is consistent with both. The Bible is also full of contradictory moral messages such as the commandment that thou shall not kill and then commandments to kill whole peoples or one’s disrespectful children or two adulterers or some sodomites. However such moral instruction can be allowed to be situational. It’s not really contradictory to say Go and then Stop to a child crossing the road is it? It depends on if a car is coming. While I find it a terrible stretch it isn’t impossible to excuse the diverse moral values communicated in the text in something like this way. Obeying God is at least consistent.

The Gospels contain numerous small inconsistencies however for me there is a glaring theological contradiction in the Christian bible that overwhelms them. In the Old Testament it is important that the Jews have no other God other than Yahweh but in the New Testament we are introduced to a Son of God whom Jews should worship. Although this Son of God is supposed to have been present from creation they never rated a mention whenever the Old Testament God specifically demanded exclusive worship. This contradiction was apparent to early Christians, who through the theology of the trinity knitted it into a workable synthesis – God is one and three. Taking the Christian bible as an example, self-contradiction isn’t a great test of a magic book because it can clearly be defeated by new interpretations that resolve what seem like irreconcilable differences.

Secondly we can investigate what a magic book claims about the world. Even non-literalists will usually accept that certain statements made by their magic books are factual and historic. If clear evidence from the world contradicts those statements then this can be a failed test of a books magic status.

The objection to a books magic status on the basis of inconsistency with what we know of the world however can be defeated in one of three ways:
  1. The historical record is so long ago that we can’t be totally sure of what we think we know about the world in that case. Archaeologists mostly don’t believe that the first born child of every Egyptian family was killed and all the Hebrew slaves escaped by drowning the Pharaoh in a river as depicted in Exodus. They believe that an Isreali identity evolved in Cannan (the Promised Land) over a longer period of settlement than this would allow. However we can only say the events of Exodus are unlikely not impossible. Defenders of Biblical inerrancy stress how the incompleteness of archaeology means we can’t be sure of a contradiction even when the biblical details seem very wrong..
  2. Exactly what is considered to be historical and what is metaphorical in a magic book is able to shift quite radically to defeat any critique based on its inaccuracy. Something like the story of Noah’s ark is considered preposterous by any zoologist. The diversity of species in just the primate family means that the only way all primates could come from two apes on the ark would be if a process of super evolution occurred after disembarking. The alternative that many different primate species were represented on the ark requires an insane amount of food, space and so on. This can be disregarded by allowing Noah’s ark to be understood as a purely allegorical story.
  3. Claims made about the world by magic books include prophecies; however unfulfilled prophecies can be shifted to a later time perpetually even when they appear to be given an expiry date. Jesus reportedly told his disciples he would return before the current generation would pass away. If we think he meant the life span of the apostles then he hasn’t but then generation could mean an epoch or even all of time. The Revelation of St. John contains specific references to churches which no longer exist. However The Revelation of St. John contains a lot of evocative imagery that was never supposed to be taken literally. Anytime can therefore be made to fit it, if you squint a little. Nobody ever has to consider these prophecies unfulfilled.

These three methods of escape mean that there really isn’t any workable test of a holy book’s claims to be found in the events of the world.

Thirdly we can come to a magic book with certain moral convictions and if we find them to be contradicted by the magic book we can reject it. This is the easiest test to use - there’s no need to keep abreast of archaeological research or scriptural interpretation – but it’s also based on a large assumption. We are assuming that our own moral convictions are sound.

The hadiths (a collection of sayings) of Mohammed (though not the Qur’an itself) demand death for an apostate. An apostate is someone who changes their religion – in this case from Islam. For me that is not only wrong but boringly wrong. I can barely muster up the energy to argue against it. If I had to I would point out that killing people for leaving your religion effectively means that some people stay in your religion purely for fear of death. That’s a sorry outcome for the individual but also for the integrity of your religion. On that basis I conclude Mohammed's hadiths are not magically true.

In the Jewish sacred Book of Deuteronomy there are instructions to stone your child to death if they are rebellious (and don’t respond to other punishments). Once again that’s so wrong to me I have no heart to argue about it. That’s a case closed example of why this is not a magic book for me. Even as I write this I am just shrugging my shoulders and thinking, “I’m done,” in terms of evaluating the absolute moral authority of this text at such a point.

In 1 Corinthians 14: 35, the Christian Apostle Paul writes that “it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church”. Again for me a statement like that is the end of any discussion that the Christian Bible including Paul’s letters is a magic book with the power to be right all the time. That doesn’t mean that I have to consider the Christian Bible useless or even Paul a bad guy on balance. There is a context for his words that we are missing. However the idea that every word in the Bible is magically preserved and arranged to be able to correctly end any argument has ceased to be possible for me.

Of course this third test has no power at all to convince someone that their magic book isn’t actually magic. What is my certain basis for condemning murdering people who leave your faith, stoning your rebellious offspring or shutting women up as a rule? I may have arguments but no certain basis. To have an absolutely certain basis I probably would need a magic book of my own – which I lack.

That’s a logical conclusion however. Emotively I feel certain of these moral convictions. They are how I have decided to live my life. I don’t anticipate them changing. Genocide is never going to be justified to me although it is justified in the Jewish Bible. Similarly the sexual expression of love between two men or two women is a beautiful thing to me even as it is condemned in a few magic books. For all intents and purposes I use these opinions as facts. I have to concede though they are not facts. Not really.

In conclusion then I don’t think there is any really effective way to test the validity of any magic book claim. Or rather any test we have can be evaded and defeated by someone convinced they have a magic book. Consequently I don’t know how to properly respond to people who use their magic books in arguments. This is sad for me and perhaps for them too.

If you do have a magic book I ask you, “What test have you used to establish your books magic status? Is there any test it could fail that would cause you to change your opinion?”

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Legend of Fear

When all thought was born there was one thought different to all the rest. This thought was born of death and hunger in the midst of scarcity. It was whipped up by the knowledge of what had been taken and by the anxiety of what might yet be lost until it stood as tall as a man. This was Fear.
Fear could fill a person so totally that it rode in them like a puppeteer. Ridden like this, such a person had one intention – to control others. Even when death and hunger came from nature, not people, the intent of Fear was that its puppet would still survive by controlling others.  If a storm destroyed all but a little food then others could feed the puppet instead of themselves.

At first Fear was dumb. Fear had no means to control but shouting and violence. This usually served to spread itself into others as well. They would react like puppets themselves until the prevalence of violence and shouting prevented any of the work of survival being done. This was why many people knew that Fear had nothing truly worthwhile to give us – that it was only a pretend or short term friend of survival. Certainly it persisted and reoccurred in pockets but it couldn’t endure for long without tearing its host community apart.

This changed when Fear came to occupy a wise person. This person was clever and in their pain Fear learned from them not to make violence. Instead Fear told stories. They sang songs. They chose a few songs and stories that made others afraid but not too many. That might have spread Fear and led to its host’s destruction. So they mostly told tales that comforted instead, that promised everything wonderful, everything perfect, and everything uncomplicated.

To others it appeared that these songs and stories came from the wise person but the wise person denied this. The wise person themself did not know where these stories and songs came from but they knew they were not their own. “All I know is that I was troubled by that which has destroyed our ancestors and our neighbours” (the wise person meant Fear), “but instead of violence and anger came these stories and songs.”

“God” someone whispered, “They have come from God.”

The intent of Fear had not changed however. Fear still piloted its host in order to control others. Only now it had learnt not to feel like fear at all but like peace. This was the greatest trick of all. Only when someone said they didn’t believe in the stories and songs, only when someone seemed un-moved by the comforts the stories promised, only when someone merely shrugged their shoulders and said “life is hard and that is that,” did Fear turn into its old self to survive.  When it did it was as violent and terrifying as it had previously been.

This was how the people knew what it really was.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Prodigal Pursuit

A father had two sons. The youngest of these came to him and asked for his inheritance.
“What, would you wish me dead?” he asked him in return.

The youngest replied, “I merely wish to make my own way in this world. Give me my inheritance so that I can be my own man.”

Although it broke his heart the father divided his estate and gave his younger son his portion. The son immediately sold the land for cash and left with the proceeds.

The older brother returned at the end of the day to find their Father depressed. “What has been done to you?”

The Father relayed what had happened and the older brother was filled with bitter rage. “Father, give me my portion of the estate too and I will sell it to raise enough money to pursue my brother and punish him for his crime.”

“But that is not what I wish.”

“Father, If I do not do this then no-one will respect you,” stated the older brother.

“Not even you, my son? Will you not respect me either?” pleaded his father.

“Not even I.”

With a truly heavy heart the father granted the older brother their wish. And this is how it has been since then. One “good” brother searches the globe to punish his “bad” brother. He maintains the cold honour of his father.

Meanwhile the father mourns alone.


Note: If you aren't familiar with it this is an adaption (corruption?) of a parable commonly titled the Prodigal Son. (Luke15:11-32)

I toyed with the idea of changing the father to a mother. To do would make more sense because we would more easily forgive the disrespect of the older brother and be appalled at the disrespect of the younger brother in that situation. Try it and see. It’s easier in our culture to justify as protection, disrespect of a matriarchs wishes, particularly for male sons.

I've also always wondered where the mother is in the original story. I know its a parable but I still think its a legitimate question.

I didn’t change it in the end in order to keep the obvious connection with Luke15:11-32. The piece was after all inspired by this young persons youtube vid.  I think she beats up on herself too harshly but I really appreciated her sentiment.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Truisms and Tropes: Taking shortcuts safely.

We all operate with certain tropes guiding us. By trope I mean a rhetorical device or cliché that we assume to be in operation in stories we encounter. Imagine a scary movie in which a young man decides to take a short cut that passes through a restricted area. A friend of mine’s short film brilliantly used this beginning to create dread. In any horror movie we know the young man has determined his fate the moment he takes the short cut. In a horror movie, you should always go the long way.

For some people such a distrust of short cuts is something for the off screen world as well. For them it may be a basic truism that well beaten paths are well beaten for some reason; people generally make sensible choices. Another truism may be that we often think we are original when we aren’t. Combine these and you have the belief that any short cut you imagine you discover has probably become the non-standard path via a process of people choosing not to use it for good reason. Such truisms are the building blocks of tropes we assume to be in place; take the short cut and expect the negative consequences.

In philosophical arguments we are often chastised for holding to truisms and tropes by other people who hold to different ones. That’s understandable. Our tropes close our minds to other arguments. They really are prejudices. They pre-judge story endings basically. Likewise we have little time for the tropes of other people that we don’t share. We rarely investigate and attack specific tropes though. Instead we just call each other close minded and accuse each other of having forgone conclusions. Perhaps because we are barely conscious of our own prejudices we insist on a position of complete open mindedness in others.

Truisms and tropes are increasingly helpful.

I don’t think it’s ideal however to operate without tropes. Honestly life is full of some pretty obvious clichés; The magic wristband that will prevent cancer, the mining magnate who only has the best interest of the nation at heart, the faith healer who needs you to make a faith commitment (by cheque or credit card). Why wouldn’t you want to avoid trusting some of these? We don’t need to do that by investigating the facts of each individual case. We can do that much faster by establishing truisms that build up tropes. We can presume to know how the story would end if we were to sign over our savings to the faith healer for example.

Furthermore facts are cheap. Did you know that 86% of people who never brush their teeth still don’t experience tooth decay? I don’t. I just made that up. How did I do that? I typed it on a page. Notice that no internet cop came and arrested me. As astonishing as it may sound whole books of facts have been made up. The internet has just made this easier. In popular fields like parenting or pet care there is page after page of absolute fiction calling itself expert advice. Why? Because there can be and giving advice is fun.

The internet has made it easier to check facts too. Enough checking and you can build a consensus of what people have typed. A consensus of people is still not a measure of much though. Many people think they’re too fat. Are they? Researching on-line can feel like chopping through a jungle of anxiety and aggrandizement, honest speculation and pure spin, accidental biases and unintelligible acid ramblings.

In such an environment truisms and tropes are time savers and sometimes even life savers. With a truism such as “people always think they know better than mother nature” we get a nice little restraining influence on something like a plan to convert deserts into fertile land. With a truism like “an idea that’s been rejected by scientific bodies is probably not true” we can filter out the voices of self-made authorities on climate change. Combine these truisms and we know not to invest in cloud-busting crystals to fight drought.

It seems to me that a relationship exists between the complexity and variety of questions we try to answer and the need for tropes and truisms. We could choose to disclaim an opinion on matters beyond a few. On those few topics we could investigate carefully and test our hypotheses. In my experience such a life feels a little irresponsible when our world is as interconnected (by trade, environmental effects and media) as it is. However if we want to have an opinion on a range of matters from global warming to the politics of Burma then we are obliged by time to use some sort of prejudice like tropes.

Relationships won’t do it anymore.

Our prejudices have traditionally taken the form of relationships. We develop a trust with a particular newspaper or columnist or set of encyclopedias. Equally we can remember who has led us wrong. However three things limit this strategies effectiveness. Firstly organizations with which we have a bad relationship simply change or conceal their name. Also organizations with which we have a good relationship are hijacked by other interests.  Relationships with people may have more stability but as any victim of abuse can attest – people can conceal true agendas while they build trust. Basically this is the inherent unreliability of authority. Just think of Jonestown.

Secondly the blistering speed with which we encounter new technologies and ideas makes it impossible for people and organizations to slowly build trust in their field.  Even in a basic area such as nutrition which we could imagine hasn’t changed since Adam’s proverbial childhood there are such shifting economies of food that the advice of one era is hard to use in the next. Is organic really necessary when it costs so much more? That depends on how conventional produce is produced. They are not using what they used a decade ago.

Thirdly in as much as you rely on a relationship of trust you fail to develop truisms and tropes of your own. Then when your authority is not available or you encounter a problem that hasn’t been exactly covered for you it is much harder to figure out your response. Basically relying on a trustworthy relationship isn’t really thinking for yourself and so is far less adaptable or tailored to your life. That’s an even greater problem when there is difference between your life and that of your trusted relationship i.e. your favourite writer has been dead fifty years or lives in another country. Once again we face such a dizzying array of changing concerns that those differences between us and our authorities are typical.

 Know your tropes.

Certainly tropes are useful, expedient and even necessary in our world. However they are still essentially an aspect of our mind’s closure. We ponder and ponder and ponder until… insert trope, we estimate how the story ends. Therefore we should use tropes carefully. We need to be able to expose and investigate a trope’s usefulness or they wont be life saving but life-endangering.

We can be unaware of our own tropes. Our tropes seldom get questioned if everyone around us shares them. That after all is what common sense is. Similarly we shouldn’t expect other people to be able to articulate what their tropes are. Many people group with like-minded people exactly so that they can share a common sense which they may not be able to articulate.

When we can’t name our tropes however then they can be implanted from anywhere. A trope that taking the shortcut will have ill effect can be built from the truisms I mentioned earlier but it can just as easily come from watching too many horror movies.  In which case we believe we know how a story ends even when we can’t say why.

Why we adopt tropes in fiction for example, where we have no experiential basis for them, is psychological wish-fulfillment. That’s what many stories, particularly horror movies, tap into for our entertainment. It’s why they’re fun. An example would be that people who take the long road rather than a short cut shall be rewarded for their effort. That’s an understandable wish if we, or a character we connect with, has made the costly decision to go the long way. However it’s not borne of anything about short cuts. There are no truisms about how shortcuts and long ways originate underlying it. Our trope in this case is borne entirely of our deep need to justify our choices to ourself. We are avoiding the negative opinion-state of going the long way for no reason but not actually responding to reality.

When we are willing to adopt tropes that are psychological wish fulfillments then we are absolutely ripe for advertising of the worst kind. We can be sold not only products but ideas. Consider the central trope of many action movies which holds that victory goes to whoever steps up the quickest and backs down last. Young men who absorb this trope are tragedies waiting to happen. Furthermore if we really let our minds go and indulge in tropes based on psychological wish fulfillment then we never learn even when reality contradicts us. That’s one way of understanding repeat violent offenders. (It’s also why many citizens of the U.S.A. would support invading Iran next regardless of actual   results in Afghanistan and Iraq).

If we are to use tropes usefully then we need to build them from explicit truisms which are themselves based on our response to reality. That response to reality doesn’t have to be direct experience. Who wants to directly experience being the victim in a horror movie? Not I.  However a response to reality is at least an opinion about how things actually are rather than how they should be.

As a final example of a trope consider the current fascination for positive thinking. Our belief that a negative attitude will lead to bad outcomes can be heavily influenced by psychological wish fulfillment. People with negative attitudes annoy us and distress us and as an inducement to be positive (and please us) we want other people to suffer for their negativity. Further we put effort into being positive and pleasing which we want to be rewarded for. However when it comes to things like whether your car breaks down pessimism can have no effect. In fact if optimism about outcomes led you to delay a car service then a positive attitude hasn’t helped at all.

On the other hand it is a truism that people are willing to give more aid to a cause they think is already likely to succeed. This truism is borne out by observations of panhandlers. The "better" dressed who describe themselves as just needing help in this moment earn much more than those who appear chronically poor. Positive thinking therefore can encourage ourselves and any other people whom we convince to give more attention and effort to a problem we have. That attention and effort helps us. This supports the trope that winners are grinners with observations from reality.

There is an important difference between the two ways of using tropes just mentioned. If our trope that winners are grinners is based on psychological wish fulfillment then we have no direction when to apply it. No particular truisms have to be in place. We will even blame whatever negativity we failed to excise from our hearts for a broken down car. On the other hand if we based our trope on what we think “is” instead of what we think “should be” then we are able to amend it with additional truisms and even discard it all together if it ceases to be useful.