Sunday, December 6, 2009

How Do You Know?

What do Swine Flu shots, global warming, and 9-11 have in common? You can find plenty of people who fall passionately on either side of the great divide that each issue has. And that's annoying. How does Joe Regular Guy know the truth when everyone on both sides claims to be telling the truth and says everyone on the other side is lying.

I've been thinking about this lots lately, but it is my blog topic tonight because of a recent debate that hijacked my Facebook status update. Two friends, regular readers of the blog I might add, got into it over the flu shots. Both were able to send me links to strengthen their positions. The same happens if you talk about global warming. People I know and respect fall on both sides of the issue and can send me plenty of links. I'm drowning in links, but it doesn't bring me any closer to knowing what the truth is.

Perhaps there is a way to know which links to believe and which ones are bogus, but it is not something that Joe Regular Guy can figure out, so these debates must be getting mired in misinformation. We've got more access to information than ever before, but we can't know what's good information and what isn't. So until someone comes up with a better way here is how I decide what's what. Not based on the truth, since who knows what that is, but on the probabilities of the truth. And I'm open to changing my mind on any of these if someone can present a convincing argument (and by that I most definitely don't mean a link to someone's expert opinion on what the truth is) that I've got the probabilities wrong. It is quite likely I could end up being wrong on all three of these issues, and that's what's so damn annoying.

Let's start with the Swine Flu shots. Why would the people who are saying to get a shot be saying so if it wasn't safe? There are two reasons I can think of. To make money for the company that makes the shots or because if lots of people get the shots the benefits to all are greater than the risks to the individual. It seems incredibly unlikely that all the shot advocates are in the drug company's pocket so I'll rule that out. If it's the latter then I don't feel too bad getting a shot because I'm a team player and I'll take one for the team. More likely it seems to me that the shot advocates are telling us to get a shot because it is good for us both as individuals and a society to be inoculated against the flu. It makes the most sense. And the kicker is that the Calgary Flames were first in line to get the shots. Why would an NHL team risk their high priced talent on something that is as risky as the anti-shot people would have you believe. It doesn't make sense. I'm trusting the Flames on this one, so I got my shot.
Yeah! We got our shots and now we're all going to die!

Next up, global warming. Global warming advocates have made a pretty convincing argument, but they could be wrong. What I find strange is that the people saying they are wrong seem to be in fields other than climatology. So the experts on climate are pretty much in agreement, but it is others that say they are wrong. That tips the scales in favour of global warming being a real problem, but it does not mean the naysayers are wrong. I am sure at some point in history all the experts in a certain field believed one thing and were proven wrong by others who weren't in the field, but it would seem to be less likely than the experts being correct.

Another point is that although naysayers could be right, if the naysayers are wrong and we continue to do nothing about the amount of CO2 we're pumping into the atmosphere then we're really going to have a big problem. The costs of doing something don't seem to be that great when compared to risk of doing nothing. Not only that, but what is the motivation for these climate experts to be telling us this if it isn't the truth? I can't see one. On the other hand there is plenty of motivation for the climate change skeptics. Who wants to risk their high standard of living by maybe having to pay more carbon tax? So this one breaks down for me as: experts with no apparent hidden agenda vs non-experts with plenty of possibilities of a hidden agenda. Put me down as in favour of starting to do something to reduce emissions.

Lastly lets look at the 9-11 thing. Was it an inside job? Again if you watch a YouTube video you can see some pretty convincing stuff. The question is, do I believe it is likely that a consipracy of that magnitude is possible. The answer is no, it does not seem likely that it could be pulled off without someone finding out. So for now I'm not buying it. Now if the Calgary Flames tell me that the U.S. government attacked it's own people then I'll have to rethink things.

Whew, I'm exhausted. Next post I'm going back to talking about tube socks or stir sticks.


  1. Weeelllllll people challenge "experts" for good reason. I won't send a link, nor try to persuade to but simply to suggest, self education on just about everything is worthwhile. There is a book called, "The Experts Speak." It is a 392-page collection of noted experts being wrong about almost everything. I don't think I could ever accept a death sentence from a doctor or a pronouncement of doom from a so-called authority. If you think about it, at one time or another the "experts" said: the sun goes around the earth, smoking is good for us, babaies feel no pain, and the Titanic is unsinkable! One thing is true, it is very confusing out there on the information highway!

  2. I think self education is about the worst thing you can do, unless you have a depth of knowledge accumulated from studying the topic in question full-time for years. Most of us simply are not nearly qualified enough to make those kinds of decisions. It's also foolish to listen to a a single expert in any field, because anyone can be wrong. The scientific method allows for individuals to disagree, while the vast majority test and re-test to be as certain as they can possibly be. For every "mistake" science has made over the years, what you've got to remember is that every single time it's been science (as a group and a model) that has discovered the mistake and given us the new paradigm.

  3. I agree that an expert can be wrong and they often are. A group of experts on a topic can also be wrong, but this happens less often than an individual expert being wrong. So the chances of the climatologists being wrong is lessened by the vast majority agreeing. Same with the health experts when it comes to shots.

    Even given that the experts can be wrong, is it the case that they are usually wrong? I suspect not. So the logical course of action is to go with what the experts say unless you are an expert in the field yourself and understand it enough to think otherwise.

    Now if the experts are split on the subject then that's where your judgement or self-education can come in.

  4. If I care enough about the question at hand, I like to hear/read as much as I can take in, then use my own intelligence to work out the route that resonates best for me, based on the information of people who have spent the time really studying the subject. Because of experience, I lean toward believing that too many of the "qualified" people are also making their decisions the same way. Subjectivity is has such influence. Doctors are pathologically trained. Medical science is far from black and white and frequently based on causation and corelation statisitcs from tests (empirical or otherwise). But in the end, what I truly support and believe is peoples right to choose.

  5. Jack, I'm generally speaking in support of your logical approach to separating the informational wheat from the disinformational chaff, but there are of course all sortsa caveats w/r/t the definition of terms. For example, regarding the vaccination issue, we have not had the time to properly assess the question of whether the flu shots do more good than harm, and by the time we do have this information, there will prolly be many months, if not years, separating people from their inoculations. So, people are making decisions based as much upon the fear mongering of the media as upon any scientific basis. As a result, I'm sceptical of the experts who claim to know what is best for us in this situation, given that the facts ain't all in, and we will not have the time to gather and evaluate all the information until the flu scare is far behind us.

  6. What you are basically saying is that nobody should do anything about this flu, because by the time we know what we should do then it will be too late. It's the same argument being used against doing anything about global warming. We aren't sure that we're causing it so we shouldn't spend a lot of money doing anything about it.

    Who isn't sure? The experts seem confident in both cases and while the experts might be wrong (The vaccine may be useless or harmful and global warming may be a myth), it seems to me that it is more likely they are right. And in both cases waiting around to be 100% sure will be too late. Of course at least with the flu the consequences really aren't all that bad (except if you're one of the rare people who die).

    Flu vaccinations have been done for years and the medical experts believe they are doing more harm than good. I'm not sure why we should fear this particular vaccine as it is just another flu vaccine. What makes it need long term analysis? Every year they have another flu vaccine and by the very nature of flu vaccines they don't have long to test it and they certainly don't wait around to see if it's doing more harm than good before getting it out to the public. If they did that then it would be too late.

  7. There's a rather vast diff between the two, Jack. If the experts are right on global warming doing nothing is pretty clearly catastrophic. The worst case scenario with the swine flu? A few hundred more people die (as you know, it is far less lethal than regular old seasonal flu).

  8. I just preferred people to make calm, rational informed decisions, which are increasingly difficult when the media is making it sound like the second coming of the bubonic plague (swine flu, not global warming, which could indeed very well be).

    btw, Guy's FB analogy to the media talking too much about baseball is misguided. Talking too much about baseball doesn't contribute to a culture of fear, which encourages people to make decisions irrationally, and also makes people much easier to manipulate (frightened people are more easily cowed into subservience. Not to mention frivoulous spending and religious conversion).

  9. The thing you keep missing here is that not everyone getting the shot is doing so out of fear. I certainly didn't do it for that reason. The people who did it for that reason would be the ones who waited in the three hour line-ups and tried to jump the queue when the shots were first offered. If you're getting a shot now then you certainly weren't in a hurry.

    I scoffed at all the fear and Swine flu hype and still find it overblown. However that doesn't mean getting a shot is a bad idea.

    It is not just the media that is suggesting we get our shots. It is the doctors and other health people. They believe it is good idea for most of us to be immune to this flu to stop its spread. It seems to me that they are likely correct about that. So I signed up to do my part.

  10. Jack, I know this is your blog and all, but this isn't about you. It's about the masses, who tend to be easily herded and irrationally swayed. I am glad you scoffed at the fear. I still think you're a pussy for getting a shot though. And that goes for the Calgary Flames as well.

    We could make MUCH better use of our very limited health care resources than that.

  11. Yes it is about the masses, but just because the masses can be easily herded and irrationally swayed doesn't mean that what they have been swayed to do is wrong. It almost seems like you're taking some kind of stand on principle. The sales pitch has been overblown so I'm not buying.

    As for being a pussy for getting a shot, I'm not sure what your logic there is. Perhaps you're just teasing Little Jackie Showers. As I've previously stated, I've never gotten flu shot before but this time around the message was packaged differently. Or at least I heard it differently. They have been explaining that if enough of us get shot then it can stop the spread, so I did my part. I knew of course that I'd have the added benefit of improving my chances of avoiding the flu (which were pretty good anyways as I'd only had a bad flu once in the last twenty years). Just doing it for my own benefit had not swayed me in the past.

    Stopping the spread of the flu can help prevent people from dying from it. I'm not afraid that I'm going to die, but other people will. Sure not as many as will die from other things, but it didn't seem like much trouble to go to to help out with this particular cause of death. Kind of like giving blood but with the added bonus of being immune from the flu myself.

    Now if I took antibiotics for something that I could just tough out instead, then that might make me a pussy. I'd only be helping myself and I'd be making the bugs stronger.

  12. One more thing about the easily swayed masses. If they are so easily swayed then why are the health people having trouble getting 50% of the people to get their shots. They wanted 70%, they are now at 40% and the demand is dropping off.

    It seems just as easy to argue that the easily swayed masses have been swayed by the anti-vaccine fear-mongers to avoid the shots. There's been plenty of hysteria arguing against the shots too. And this was my original point. It's so hard to know the truth with so much information (disinformation) out there.

  13. First off, yes, I was teasing you. I suspect the shot hurt moe than the flu you were prolly never gonna get, so good on you for taking it for the team.

    Otherwise, I'd have to say that you're missing my point. Well, you're bouncing off of the edge of it, more like. My real complaint here is that the way the "deadly" flu pandemic was handled was just one more contribution to a culture swamped by fearmongering (tabloid style news networks are the biggest transgressors, but their success is leaking into almost all news reportage).

    I wish I was more of an optimist, cuz then I wouldn't be so cynical and suspect that the reason people aren't getting their flu shots at the rate officials like prolly has less to do with them making calm, rational decisions in the face of that irrational fear-based reporting I have been complaining about and more to do with apathy, inertia and laziness.

  14. Speaking of laziness, I read a newspaper article yesterday that said that health care workers only have a 40% inoculation rate. The speculation was that the problem was that the shots were being given in a central location in the hospital and not by a mobile unit going around to the workers. If that is the problem, then that's really lazy!

    Or maybe the health care workers know something I don't know.

    I believe I agree with your point on the coverage of the flu, I just didn't reach the same conclusion regarding whether getting a shot was a good idea or not. I see the two as separate issues.

    In fact, it is the coverage that is the problem because it muddies the issues and makes figuring out the truth rather problematic.

  15. I think there is a lot we don't really understand. We'd be a lot better off accepting that we don't understand, rather than trying to understand and thinking we control it!Most of the problems in our world are caused by our need to be in control. Let life happen to you, you don't need to dictate it!All of these issues and the thoughts around them are a reflection of a fundamental dysfunctional philosophy in our world, that we have to be in control?

  16. You just added one thing to the list of things I don't understand.

  17. Don't let him fool you, Jack understands all about letting go, especially after any meal at a Mexican restaurant.

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  20. Now, now, Dan. Now that you've commented, I can't ask Jack to delete. I was just bugging you about the DFW touches to your writing. Obviously, I didn't put a lot of time or thought into it otherwise it would have been funnier. Or even funny. At least Jack's posted another topic so chances are nobody even comes back to this one anymore.

  21. Hey look, I can delete it myself. So I did. And here's the part that wasn't a dig at you:

    I used to eat up the news. I'd read the papers, watch it on TV. Now I never read the paper, watch the news or listen to news on the radio. Nothing. Not for any particular reason. I'm just not interested. If something's big enough, I'll hear about it.

    So the media can fearmonger all they want and it doesn't affect me. I got the flu shot because my doctor, who I trust, recommended it. Plain and simple. Easy.

  22. Guy, point taken. Intonation is everything and I obviously missed yours here.

    However, if you're taking a dig at me cuz I use PROLLY and W/R/T in my writing, I have to point out that both of these pre-date DFW. For instance, The Confederacy of Dunces uses prolly, and it was published many moons before Wallace came on the scene.

    But if I've offended with my apparently derivative stylings, mea culpa.

    Finally, again, I want to point out I wasn't intending my critique of the Swine Flu fearmongering to be an attack on individual choices (though I did try to joke about it by calling ya'll pussies), but rather an attack on way mass media contributes to the culture of fear that is a rather large burr in my personal saddle. If that makes any sense at all.

  23. I'm glad we've settled that. I've never read The Confederacy of Dunces. And, truth be told, I've never seen DFW use 'prolly'. Just 'w/r/t'. On a side note, I had a philosophy prof (Charlie Daniels) who always wrote probly, not as a mistake but like you do with prolly. It makes more sense to me because I actually pronounce the b. Anyway, Dan you know I'd never slight you. That is, of course I'd slight you, but I still like you.

    Yes, the media contributes to the culture of fear, but I've found if you don't watch or read the media, it has zero effect.

  24. You can slight me all you want Guy, and I'll reserve the right to act all wounded and pouty in response.

    Anyways, we have clearly returned to a harmonious state, cuz like you I don't watch news on TV or read newspapers (though I do like to read magazine articles, which have the benefit of being given the time necessary to actually do some research, and so come off as more studied, unlike the knee jerk moment to moment editorializing that you find in yer avg daily rag.)

    I know you aren't into fiction, but Confederacy of Dunces is a pretty good read. It's no Infinite Jest, mind you...

  25. Well that's a first for the old Blog. Retractions! And I didn't even get to see what all the fuss was about. Probably better that way.