Tuesday, June 26, 2007

A Little Knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

I had a conversation with my eldest son Michael about a month ago. It was just before I got married. We discussed: “Why can't knowledge be used to make things in society work better?” This question of my son's got me to thinking about what is knowledge and what is the difference between knowledge of nature and knowledge of human affairs. In philosophy, this is called epistemology, the study of knowledge.

I was very gratified that Michael was interested in this subject. And, though at that time that I studied philosophy in University, I wondered whether there was any point in it, my son's question made me realize how important the consequences of a particular epistemology can be.

Consider the case of “self-fufilling prophecies”. I believe that my neighbour is a witch. I accuse her in public. She denies it, but under the law the way to ascertain if someone is a witch is to torture them ( truth by ordeal). It's no surprise that the majority of accused will confess after being tortured. And the publicity of the case leads some people to see more witches, just by the power of suggestion. Soon more people confess to being witches and now we're into a full blown witch hunt.

Eventually the witch hunts ended but not before tens of thousands of women were burned at the stake. This happened about five hundred years ago. The interesting thing here is that the fact that witches with supernatural powers don't exist didn't stop Europe from seeing more and more witches. In other words, beliefs can be self-reinforcing even though they are false.

Consider another case closer to home. Banks don't actually have as much money as people deposit in them. They create money by loaning out multiples of their cash deposits. If most depositors believe that there is enough money then there is enough money. And as a consequence, each individual will have no trouble withdrawing their whole deposit if they want to. But if enough people believe that there isn't enough money, they will make a run on the banks, banks will close down and people will not be able to withdraw their money. So their won't be enough money.

Or, if enough people believe that money is worth less today than it was yesterday, they will delay paying back their loans, they will spend their money as fast as they can, the money supply will expand and prices will rise. So money will be worth less. Again, a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Our beliefs about ourselves effect our actions. Author George Soros calls this “reflexivity”. That means that human behaviour is not independent from our knowledge of it. Why is this important? Because it means that the correspondence theory of truth does not always work. A statement is true if it corresponds to reality. I'm sitting on a chair. This corresponds to the truth. No problem. But what if our thoughts change reality? Then the idea of “correspondence” is problematic because thoughts and realities are not independent of each other. It's when you get into things like witches and money that correspondence to reality is a problem because what we believe about witches or money effects their reality.

We can assume that the correspondence theory of truth works for natural science but not always for the social sciences because of the principle of reflexivity. Thus the idea that the way we study social science must be different in kind from the way we study nature. Of course we go on acting as if the truth of our statements about humans corresponds to reality but we have a lot harder time knowing for sure. What we believe could just be a self-fulfilling prophecy. And the stronger we believe it the more self reinforcing it becomes.

If knowledge must be certain this implies that those with access to knowledge have a monopoly on the truth. Any political system based on this will be rigid and closed to change or improvement. This is the religious, tribal, and totalitarian approach to knowledge and it leads to a closed society. That's why epistemology is so important. If we believe that knowledge is fallible then we have to be at least open to other points of view and open to change in our views. And if knowledge is imperfect that means that there is always room for improvement. Next week I would like to continue this discussion by touching on George Soros' and Karl Popper's idea of the “Open Society”

Monday, June 18, 2007

Rick, I hardly knew yeh

I'm the kind of guy who is a klutz with machines. I don't know how to maintain them, I don't keep them cleaned and oiled. My bicycles are a case in point. I hardly ever clean the chains. But I used to neglect them even worse. I used to leave my bike outside all the time. That was one thing that Rick Nicolier taught me not to do. He told me in explicit detail how keeping a bike outside in the rain is the worst thing you can do to it. I know that's pretty obvious, but that hadn't stopped me from doing it before. Rick was that kind of guy. He could explain what happens to a machine so that you not only understood, but you learned something from it. He knew exactly what he was talking about and he didn't waste words.

About six years ago a friend gave me a bike and I got Rick to rebuild it for me. The piece de resistance was the “ape hanger” handlebars that Rick supplied from his own personal stock. We used to call them “J bars” when I was a kid. They were popular on bikes with banana seats. Another time Rick put together a banana bike. Seeing him ride it was like being in a time warp.

I try and make my bicycles look as ugly as possible, so that no-one wants to steal them. But after Rick built that bike for me I started getting complements from kids on the street. Believe me, that has never happened before.

The bikes that Rick created for himself were works of art. Not that they belonged in a museum – they ought to be be ridden – but they were so beautiful. Super-extended front forks - “choppers” with elaborate chrome finish. Seats with low centers of gravity and extra long chains and frame. He built some for his nephews that are still around town. He used to ride around downtown in his choppers.
Apparently Rick had lived in a lot of different places, including Switzerland. He lived here about twenty years ago, then he moved here again more recently when he worked at Far West as a bicycle mechanic. He fixed up and rebuilt a lot of bikes for kids in town, some of them for free. A friend of mine told me that when Rick was younger he had built a souped up volkswagon. It looked unprepossesing but it could clean the clock of a lot of the muscle cars in town.

He also fixed and rebuilt electric guitars. One of my regrets was never hearing Rick play guitar or ever jamming with him. I imagine he liked Clapton.

Why he kept moving around I don't know. He told me that one time he had lived in Langly in a tent. It happened to be a very rainy year and he got real sick.

He never warned me that he was moving away from Prince Rupert. One day I came to have my bicycle fixed and he wasn't working there any more. He'd left town. The signs were there before. He was getting more resentful, things seemed to be building up. He was getting more and more negative about living here.

I wish he hadn't moved. I wish that he had worked out some of his frustrations by talking to his friends. Share the anxiety. Don't keep it all to yourself. That's my philosophy. Moving isn't always a good solution. We build up relationships, get support from people and then it gets lost when we move away. It's like a marriage – you need to find a way of dealing with your frustrations within the relationship or the buildup will lead to an acrimonious split.

What a talent. What a beautiful mind. And he ended his life two weeks ago in Nanaimo. Why?

Rick, it's too late for me to tell you how much I admire and look up to you. And it's too late to tell you that you meant something in this town, not just to me. It isn't fair is it?

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Canoe Nation

The flooding of the Skeena was difficult to see from Prince Rupert. We had to watch it on t.v. We saw some people in Terrace who couldn't keep their houses from flooding. In some places, the only way you could get around was by canoe.

The flooding has now reached its peak and we can expect to get our highway reconnected soon. This has also been the year of landslides with one cutting off power to Prince Rupert and the other killing two motorists.

I've been watching the local cbc news to see coverage of the floods and I happened to watch “The National” and saw a program about “The Seven Wonders of Canada”. Out of thousands of entries they had to choose seven. I was amazed that Haida Gwai turned out to be the eighth wonder, just missing the cut. Hey, I thought of Haida Gwai when I first heard about the seven wonders.

There were the obvious wonders: the Rockies, and Niagra Falls; the sublime - “prairie skies”; the “geographically correct”: Old Quebec City, and Pier 21 in Halifax. And finally there were two wonders that I wouldn't have thought of: the canoe and the igloo. So Canadian and so life sustaining. Personally, I prefer kayaks to canoes. But when you think about it, the canoe makes better sense. I bet you that there are many people in Prince Rupert who were proud to hear that the canoe was chosen to be one of the seven wonders of Canada.

Long ago the canoe was the main means of transportation in Canada. When the French and English first came to Canada they used canoes out of necessity, the way we use automobiles now. The Hudson's Bay Company depended on the canoe, the voyageurs, and the first nations people for the development of the fur trade. First nations people invented the birch bark canoe – a beautiful example of gracefulness and simplicity.

For most of our history the canoe was the only way to get from one part of our huge country to another. That is something that our three founding cultures share together. Even today the canoe has rich significance for many Canadians. Some see the canoe as a living part of their traditions. Some see it as a way to keep in touch with the Canadian wilderness. As English, French, and First Nations, we may be cut off from each other, but the canoe is one thing that unites us all.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

An Orwellian Direction

I’ve been reading a book called, Mao, The Untold Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday. If half of what this book says is true, then Mao was a power-hungry psychopath, surpassing Hitler and Stalin as the worst mass murderer in history. We on the left laugh about the ideological blindness of the right, but in the sixties and seventies many of us were equally blinded by the wall of propaganda emanating from China. Mao got a better press than Hitler and Stalin because he had much tighter control over Chinese society. Western visitors to China like Pierre Trudeau and Edgar Snow were bamboozled by the Chinese, partly because it is difficult for westerners to conceive of the vastness of the scale of deception.
During the “Great Leap Forward” Mao pursued a policy of crash industrialization, not in order to raise the Chinese standard of living but so that China could have modern weaponry, such as nuclear weapons. He paid for the weapons factories and foreign expertise by exporting food to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe knowing full well that China had no excess capacity. Every kilogram of grain he sent abroad deprived the Chinese peasants of food necessary for their survival. According to Chang and Halliday, thirty-eight million Chinese starved to death during the period between 1958 and 1961, the largest famine in history.

About ten years earlier a British journalist by the name of George Orwell wrote a prophetic book called nineteen eighty- four. It was a “dystopia” – a story about the world of the future gone horribly wrong. In it he predicted that communism and capitalism would become indistinguishable. The manipulation of people’s thoughts by propaganda would be perfected into a science. History would be continuously rewritten and revised to fit the latest propaganda campaigns. And all the countries in the world would be in a permanent state of war with each other.

Forty years ago I was depressed for weeks after reading Orwell’s book. At the time I consoled myself by the thought that it was unlikely to happen. When the year 1984 came and went and six years later the Soviet Union collapsed and the Berlin wall came down, it seemed a good reason to be optimistic.

More than twenty years after 1984, George W. Bush instituted a “War on Terror” – a war which fuels Islamic terrorism rather than quenching it. A war which, Bush himself admits has no end in sight. And the Bush White House has dragged the United States into a futile war in Iraq with the help of lies, misinformation, and a systematic bullying of dissent.

This is not the crude propaganda of the Soviet era. This is far more sophisticated . Misinformation is fed to the press anonymously – rumours that undermine opponents of the regime and false information that bolsters the administration’s case for war. People are prevented from informing the public about facts that conflict with the administration's version because the administration regularly classifies this information as secret.

Intelligent reports are watered down or exaggerated in order to support the government’s current policies. Not only has this led to bad decision making it has seriously undermined the democratic process. How can the U. S. function as a democracy when its citizens are prevented from knowing the truth? Supporters of the Iraq war like to say: “freedom isn’t free”. But if Americans are systematically lied to and kept from the truth they’ve already lost their freedom.

One could argue that Bush and Cheney are responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and the creation of millions of Iraqi refugees. Of course it doesn’t compare to the crimes of Mao.

I get a sense of deja-vu from Bush and Cheney. We’re not there yet. But doesn't it seem as if we are going in an Orwellian direction? And the farther we go in that direction the more possible it becomes for someone like Mao Tse- Tung to rise to power again.