Belief

Approaching a Deflationary Crisis?

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Published on the FEASTA on August 15, 2015

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Anyone with any sense for global economic trends ought to be worried. The signs are everywhere of a serious deflationary crisis. It is obvious that Chinese growth is falling. The prices for energy and the raw materials that feed the growth economy keep falling. The demand for Chinese exports is down too. Stock Markets in Asia are falling, despite attempts to prop them up. Countries are being tempted to export their problems abroad – for example by competitive devaluation. In Europe its obvious that a “solution” is being cobbled together for the Euro and Greek crisis even though no one at all believes that it will work. At the same time the policy response of “quantitative easing” which has kept interest rates down very low has reached the end of the road. With interest rates at or near to zero the scope for addressing the crisis through monetary policy (low interest rates) is exhausted. Many pundits believe that low interest rates have not encouraged productive investment but speculative bubbles – the creation of capacity in fields that in the long run will not pay, or fuelled a casino style speculation, a giant bubble of bets that could soon collapse, bringing the global economy down with it.

So what is going on? How do we explain the situation? In this paper I am going to argue that there are a number of ways of understanding and addressing what is developing into a global crisis. The desire to make the crisis understandable can convert into a temptation to make it seem simpler than it is. At its most banal we have the explanations that neo liberal German politicians are prone to – like the idea that the crisis is because of a lack of confidence and trust and that this can be resolved (in Europe) purely and simply by countries following the Eurozone rules. If the confidence and trust are restored then all will be well and the market will restore prosperity.

A more adequate story is needed than this – and it is one that needs to focus on global trends not just in Europe but in the USA, the so-called developing world and above all in China. This story has a number of different plots and sub plots, not one. We need to understand how the sub plots interweave. The story is one of debt, competitive imbalances and an energy crisis and all need to be told. To make the story even more complicated we need to keep in mind too that an even more important story, that of climate change, has to be held in our minds too. If and when humanity has any chance of resolving these crises it will have to resolve that one at the same time. Will this be possible? I don’t know – what I do know is that there is a theory, by archeologist Joseph Tainter, that humanities’ problem solving capacities are limited by complexity. A friend is currently trying to get me to use twitter. However I am daunted by reducing complex situations to short simple messages. Understanding the global economy is like entering a labyrinth. As I get older I notice that some people become famous because of the clarity in the way that they write. What may not be noticed is that the apparent clarity in a political economic message is often the result of simplification. The popularity of neo-liberal economcs is like that.
So lets look at the ways of describing the crisis. In summary this can be described as the interrelationship between 4 processes.

(1) Structural policy stupidity – policy governance cannot cope with the complexity of the crisis. Politicians cannot cope with communicating complex messages to their peoples nor find the mechanisms to cope with the complexity of the issues.
(2) Problems are also caused by uneven development between countries and sectors which cannot be sustained without methods for recycling purchasing power from the more competitive countries to the less competitive ones. These imbalances become most problematic when capital export from surplus to deficit countries slows which happens when growth slows in the deficit countries.
(3) The crisis is both cause and effect of a rising amount of debt – personal, corporate, state and financial sector – which has acted as a drag on growth. As growth falls all kinds of debt become more difficult to service so the monetary authorities have tried to push interest rates down. Nevertheless the finance sector has tended to become both more speculative and more predatory as there is a “hunt for yield”. Interest rates rise when risk premiums are imposed on distressed borrowers (including states), money making occurs through financing arrangements based on “passing the risk parcel” exploiting the naivety of lenders about complex financial arrangements and by the promotion of asset price bubbles. The bigger players are rescued during crises but the smaller players (including tax payers and those who lose their state benefits) are made to pay.
(4) The crisis is the result of reaching “the limits of economic growth” and, in particular, because of resource depletion in the energy sector. This is less obvious because of currently low and falling energy and commodity prices but we need to study the experience of the energy sector over last few years, not just the immediate situation. The immediate fall in commodity and energy prices is a result of the onset of the crisis – a crisis which very high and rising energy prices up until recently helped bring on. The high energy prices have been compatible with a high level of debt only because interest rates have been so low and because there has been a “hunt for yield”, something that would pay more than leaving money on deposit paying very little.

Depletion of resources in the energy and mining sector means that it is taking more energy than before to extract energy (and other mined resources) and this has pushed up the costs of extraction of energy and other minerals. High energy costs act as a drag on the growth of the economy as a whole – because energy costs, like interest rates, enter into the production of virtually everything else. This is particularly acute problem in the energy sector itself as the energy sector is such a huge user of energy. The energy companies need a high price for energy otherwise they cannot actually make a profit. However, if energy prices are high for too long the economy wilts.

The development of unconventional oil and gas has been possible because quantitative easing has made a large amount of money to Wall Street at a low interest rate and they have been “searching for yield” – looking for somewhere to put this money to earn a high rate of interest. This funded the voracious capital expenditure needs of the industry with its high drilling intensity. However it pre-supposed that prices would remain high enough for long enough to cover costs and this has not happened. The problem is set to get a lot worse as depletion speeds up.

So, to repeat, the best way to tell the story of this crisis needs to relate ALL of these elements together – policy failure, debt, imbalances, energy. Each element is causatively connected to the others but sometimes in a time lagged way which obscures the relationships. Together these elements are bringing about what some observers are calling “secular stagnation”.

“Stanley Fischer, vice-chairman of the US Federal Reserve, has laid out the predicament that forecasters face. Half way through each year, economists have had to explain why their global growth forecasts were too optimistic, he said, and this has happened “year after year”. While growth rates have been falling across the world, it’s not yet clear whether this is all a hangover from the 2008 crash or something more fundamental.”[1]

In my view it is “something more fundamental”. It is related to reaching the limits to growth – and this has to do with fossil fuel and materials depletion and the end of cheap energy. However, this does not exclude a partial truth in the other narratives that economists are using to explain low growth.

In the reminder of this article I run through each of these themes in more depth.

Explanation number one: “structural policy stupidity”

First of all structural policy stupidity – all politics must be sold in one way or another to the governed. Even autocrats strive to govern with ideas as well as through simple fear. The rhetoric of politicians must to some degree match the way people think about things – that means one ingredient for successful politics is where politicians succeed in appealing to popular illusions embodied in “common sense”. One such popular illusion is that states have to arrange their finances using the same principles that ordinary households use to run their personal finances. Never mind that this is not true – the politicians who pursue policies and use a rhetoric that appeals to the “person in the street” viewpoint have a head start. As a number of economists have noted these politicians work with an ultra simple (and wrong) model of economic reality – that if governments follow rules and don’t borrow excessively this will inspire confidence and trust and economies will grow, spurred on by competition. It does not matter that this idea may actually be self defeating when an economy is slipping into recession – the important point is that collective illusions persist when they fulfil a collective purpose for those that hold them. In this case a key collective purpose of “the balanced budget illusion” is that it makes communicating with electorates so much easier. It enables a message of “we cannot afford” and “being cruel to be kind” to be directed against vulnerable groups who can be more easily scapegoated.

Complex messages are not popular and don’t sell well even if they more accurately reflect reality. Please note here that I am saying something more than politicians are mistaken – my argument is that ideas like the balanced budget illusion is more than “a mistake”. It is an illusion that has a structural function in the political process. It is not an accident that this particular theme repeats itself in history again and again. There is no reason to believe that once an idea has been rejected by one generation after a bitter learning experience, that a subsequent generation that have not been through the same learning experience will not have to learn it the hard way all over again.

One of the sayings of the management theorist Stafford Beer was that “the purpose of a system is what it does”. I really like this because it cuts through all the rhetorical justifications and excuses. If a system like the Eurozone is ruining its less competitive members in favour of the more competitive ones then this is the purpose of the system. Were it not the purpose of the system most powerful players in it would change it.

In this regard the very structure of the Eurozone has proved ideal for putting the banking and financial elite of Europe out of reach of democratic political processes. The currency is managed at a level out of the reach of any one state with the finances of each state disciplined by a set of rules that enforces close to a balanced budget. Given the inevitable crises each government that becomes vulnerable then has to cede more and more economic policy to financial interests who are free to impose neo-liberal policies like privatisation quasi automatically. The “coup” against Greece was a design feature of the Euro and delivers the primacy of finance over any pretence of democratic politics.

Given the complexity of eurozone governance, in which every state is supposed to have a say and decisions must be passed back to all of these governments, it seems as if governance requires a set of rules that governments adhere to, otherwise there would be endless re-negotiations for each new situation, and for each state, that would go on forever. In an interview in the New Statesman Yanis Varoufakis explained this when he described the viewpoint of Wolfgang Schaueble.

“Schäuble was consistent throughout. His view was ‘I’m not discussing the programme – this was accepted by the previous government and we can’t possibly allow an election to change anything. Because we have elections all the time, there are 19 of us, if every time there was an election and something changed, the contracts between us wouldn’t mean anything.’”

If you think about it this is not only a recipe for the negation of democracy it is the negation of any kind of economic policy discussion or policy variability. A common currency zone cannot work in these circumstances because it is paralysed by its complexity into ever being unable to adapt its economic policy. The default is then to a neo-liberal assumption of a balanced budget (or budget surplus, free market rules and privatisation). All it can do is to follow a set of pre-determined rules. In this case the policy that destroys economies like that of Greece appears as the price paid to avoid endless renegotiations.
The problem for the Eurozone and the global economy is that this is leading to a massive deflation….or maybe from an elite viewpoint this is not so negative. Maybe this is not “policy stupidity” but a cunning plan???

In a massive crisis in which only the super elite are rescued and everyone else ruined there would be a further massive concentration of wealth and power. Perhaps members of the super elite – the 1% of the 1% – think in this way. Or maybe I am paranoid.

Explanation number two – too much debt

Global stock of debt outstanding

Some economists think that that somehow debt doesn’t matter since, supposedly, debt transfers purchasing power from debtors to creditors who will spent it instead so debt is not supposed to affect “aggregate demand”. Alas this misunderstands the mechanisms of bank credit creation. In order for money creation and demand expansion to occur in the current system there is a requirement that more bank credit creation – i.e. more borrowing from banks – takes place. If individuals and companies are maxed out (“peak debt”) and if they are reluctant to take on more debt then aggregate demand cannot be increased. In fact, even if the central bank pumps out more money through “quantitative easing” this will do little or nothing to increase demand. The central bank will create money to buy bonds from banks but the money created and paid over will remain unused by the banks and the velocity of circulation will fall. The single demand expansion influence is that interest rates are lower and this is supposed to encourage investment – something that does not happen if the conditions for expansion do not otherwise exist. What happens instead is that money goes into speculation.

Meanwhile if companies and individuals are maxed out they will be making an effort to pay back their debts to the banks. When this happens money is destroyed and goes out of circulation. More particularly chain reactions from defaults and collapsing confidence destroys the trust and confidence on which the financial system works and leads to massive deflation. Now this situation of collapsing purchasing power in the private economy could in theory be balanced out by government spending leading to the governments running deficits – but that’s against the eurozone rules.

Explanation number three – global imbalances/failing mechanisms to recycle purchasing power

Another explanation for current stagnation is the breakdown of mechanisms for dealing with international trade and financial imbalances. In his book The Global Minotaur Yanis Varoufakis, describes the history of the post war economy by focusing on the story of how trade and financial imbalances were managed – particularly the imbalances between the USA and the rest of the world, but also imbalances in the Eurozone. As he explains, unless there is a mechanism for recycling surpluses from countries in trade surplus back to countries in trade deficit then purchasing power drains away from the deficit countries who are put in a deflationary squeeze as is happening to Greece currently. In the initial period after world war two the USA was dominant in the global economy and was in trade surplus to the rest of the world. It used the financial flows into America that were generated by its surplus of exports over imports by investing back into the rebuilding of countries like Germany and Japan and more generally into the American design for the postwar economy as bulwark against communism. The recycling of surpluses back into deficit countries kept the boom going. But you won’t catch Germany recycling its surpluses back into Greece now.

The answer to an export surplus in one country which occurs over and against import surpluses in other countries is for the countries with the export surplus to use the money that they earn in capital export back to the deficit countries. They invest in those countries. However, that implies that there is something in the deficit countries that is an attractive focus for investment. It implies that those countries are growing – which brings the argument round full circle. For decades the USA was the largest economy in the world and a growing economy. This meant that when the US first went into what was to be a long running trade deficit it was still worth Germans, Japanese or Chinese parking their dollar earnings as deposits into Wall Street banks or using them to lend to the US government. The dollars earned by Germany, Japan and later by China could be invested in the US economy or they could be used to buy oil. This was also because, by agreement with countries like Saudi Arabia, oil had to be purchased in dollars. This arrangement partly broke down however when Wall Street crashed in 2007 – in large part because it was operating a criminal business model. Loans were made to people who it was known would never be able to pay them back and packaged up with other assets and then sold on across the world to pension funds and other financial institutions who picked up the risk parcel, misled by ratings agencies. The ratings agencies were paid to say that the “toxic trash” was AAA grade.

Turning the finance explanation upside down

So, to come back to the story – yes the current problems are due to too much debt. Yes, mechanisms for recycling global financial flows arising out of trade imbalances no longer work so well after Wall Street and other banksters in London and Frankfurt are seen to be run by crooks….but one can argue that these two phenomena are also the result of the failure to grow, as much as the cause. You can turn at least a part of the argument on its head.

What I mean by that is that a rising amount of debt in general and troubled debt in particular is not just a cause of faltering growth – the faltering growth is a cause of the increasing amount of troubled debt.

Debt is not usually seen to be a problem for companies and individuals where their income is rising and sufficiently secure for people to pay the interest. It is when people find that their real income is stagnating or falling that more debt becomes distressed debt and distressed debt becomes the lender business model. Prudential lending pays in a growing economy with growing investment opportunities – but the temptation to resort to predatory lending occurs when there is an awareness of, even a decision to exploit, the desperation of people in trouble. This becomes part of the model. What happens when a country, or a company, or an individual, cannot pay? The answer is that the interest rate that they are supposed to pay for any new credit rises dramatically because they are now supposed to pay the lender “a risk premium”. This is the last stage of a process of debt accumulation. When a debt pyramid comes crashing down it does so because, just before it crashes, debt servicing costs get dramatically worse as “risk premiums” are loaded onto borrowers.

This “risk premium” might lead one to suppose that lenders actually are tolerating a higher level of risk for which they must be compensated – however this is only partly true for the biggest players. When the biggest players are deemed “too big to fail” they get backed by politicians so the “risk” is taken off – that is, after all, what happened to the German and French banks that lent to Greece. The deal stitched up by the IMF and the ECB meant that they got bailed out and the debt loaded onto the Greek people. So while risk premiums allow banks to increase their take the real risks do not rise commensurately.

The temptation to borrow under increasingly unfavourable conditions is not like borrowing to invest or to buy an asset with the secure expectation of a rising income. As debt increases the business model for lenders becomes more and more making money with distressed debt, vulture funds, passing the risk parcel and toxic trash. It occurs because borrowing states, institutions and individuals resort to what becomes a kind of gambling considered as a last resort, as an attempt at a way out of a desperate situation. That’s one of the ideas of Prospect Theory. Normally people are risk averse, they don’t risk what little they still have if they have anything left – however they do gamble when all of their other options seem hopeless anyway. Underlying all of this is that the rising incomes are no longer there. By way of contrast the institutions lending are not taking real risks because they have friends in very high places.

Turning the imbalance argument around

One can turn the idea about imbalances the other way round too. In one way of looking at the situation it seems that growth falters because the mechanisms to handle imbalances by recycling surpluses break down. No doubt there is truth in this but you can turn that idea round – i.e. it is when growth falters that the mechanisms to handle imbalances by recycling surpluses dry up. As we have argued the way to recycle surpluses is through capital export – the purchasing power flows back to the deficit countries not as money to purchase their goods as imports into the surplus countries but rather as money to buy into the industries and economies of the deficit countries, as investment. But who is going to invest into a stagnant or contracting economy?

Look what happened to the German privatisation of East Germany. The institution that was entrusted to sell off East German industry, the Treuehand, made a big loss. How could that be? When the East German economy was merged with the West German economy it was at the rate of one East German mark for one West German mark. This was an early lesson of what would happen in the eurozone except that it all happened inside Germany itself. The East Germans could not compete after reunification, just like the Greeks cannot compete now. So most East German businesses were making huge losses. However, if you want to sell off companies then you have to sell them as going concerns. You have to keep them going before you sell them….which often meant making huge losses. What they got for the sale of these companies never covered these losses.

Wolfgang Schaueble knows this – he was involved. They will not make any money selling Greek assets either. When the Austrian Railways considered a takeover of the Greek railways they said they would only do this if the Greek railways were given away. Unless Greece is growing and prospering there will be very little capital export into Greece to actually buy privatised assets.

So, to summarise the argument so far: slowing growth can be explained by increasing debt reaching its limits and the breakdown of mechanisms to even imbalances by recycling purchasing power from surplus to deficit countries. On the other hand the fact that debt is reaching its limits and surplus recycling limits are breaking down can be explained by slowing growth. Both are true in both directions of causation and what we are seeing here is a “vicious cycle” in operation.

Explanation number four – the energy crisis

Now let’s add the fourth way of looking at the issues. Let us start by making a distinction between growth of production and growth of production capacity. Growth of production can occur if there is spare capacity in an economy in the form of unemployed resources which can be brought back into utilisation – but for growth to be long term there must be a growth of the capacity of an economy.

This depends upon expenditure in capital formation – the creation of buildings, equipment and infrastructure. Capital formation is an energy intensive business because infrastructure, buildings and equipment require energy in their production – plus they require an energy throughput for their utilisation. The point about energy is that it is required for every good or service purchased. Even a haircut requires electric light or warmth in the barbers shop and to run electric clippers. Anything that enters into the production of all goods and services is a cost of production that all share. So if the cost of energy rises so does the cost of producing everything.

The nearest comparable example of a cost that enters into the production of all goods and services is interest rates. Virtually all individuals and companies must borrow so the interest rate enters into the cost of all production and into many everyday living expenses too. You can argue therefore that the real reason that interest rates have been driven down so low by central bankers is that energy costs have been so high. It is has not been possible for the economy to sustain BOTH high interest rates AND the higher energy prices. This is the reason for the stagnation.

Most energy intensive of all is investment in the energy and mining sector. The amount of energy required to tap and process energy is rising as it becomes harder to find, extract, process and transport oil, gas and coal from smaller, deeper, more remote, and harder to tap geological sources.

Slowing growth of global productive capacity is the result of the global economy running up against ecological system limits. This is particularly apparent in the climate crisis and the costs that occur as a result of this but, more immediately too, in the economics of extracting fossil fuels. The long run trend is towards rising energy costs which acts as a drag upon the growth of the productive capacity of the global economic system. The most energy intensive sector of all is the energy sector itself. We can see that if we compare the amount of energy used per hour of human activity in the energy and mining sector compared to the amount of energy used per hour of human activity in other economic sectors. (This is the so called exosomatic metabolic rate). These figures are for Catalonia in 2005 because the academics who have studied this issue are mainly at the University of Barcelona but one can expect comparable figures in other places. The rates are 2,000 Megajoules per hour of human activity devoted to energy and mining. This compares to 2.8 Megajoules per hour outside of paid work in households, 75 Megajoules per hour in services and government, 331 Megajoules per hour in the building and manufacturing sector (not including energy and mining) and 175 MJ/h in agriculture. As a matter of fact 11% of the energy throughput of society was taken by the energy sector itself – even though only 0.0945% of the time of everyone in Catalonia was devoted to energy and mining.

With energy and mining being the most energy intensive sector one would expect the impact of rising energy costs to be felt initially and most powerfully in the energy and mining sector itself. This has indeed been the case. In a presentation by Steve Kopits of the Douglas Westwood Consultancy he shows this graph (CAGR = compound annual growth rate).

Impact of energy costs on mining

As can be seen the capital expenditure required per barrel of oil in the exploration and production sector has increased enormously. To extract oil is requiring greater and greater amounts of investment in exploration and production.

We can see very clearly what is happening if we look at the statistics for fracking for shale oil in the USA. The fact that the US oil and gas industry has had to resort to fracking is a sign that American oil and gas fields are highly depleted and near to exhaustion. As an analyst called Arthur Berman puts it, fracking is the “retirement party” of the oil and gas industry. It is not a new beginning. As a matter of fact the USA, Russia and Saudi Arabia almost produce an identical amount of oil but look at the difference in the way that they produce it:

USA = 11.7 MMBl/d, 35,669 wells, 297 million feet
Russia = 10.9 MMbls/d, 8688 wells, 83 million feet
Saudi Arabia = 11.4 MMBls/d, 399 wells, 3 million feet
[2]

In order to extract a roughly equivalent amount of oil the US industry has to drill almost 100 times the footage in wells and drill 90 times the number of wells. It is obvious that that will require an enormous amount of energy to get out an equivalent amount of oil (and gas) and that the cost will be a lot higher. But is this investment actually profitable? The answer is that it is only profitable at higher and higher oil prices. Different oil and gas companies require different prices to break even but, according to Kopits most of the oil companies require an oil price of at least $100 for new investment in conventional oil production to be profitable. High prices are needed in the unconventional sector too and most of the fracking companies in the USA have not been making money for several years. In the last year the price has fallen even lower.

So how come that they are still around? How come they have not gone bust? There are several kinds of reply to this.

Firstly, in economics things happen if people take a view of the future in which they believe that they will be profitable – even if subsequent experience shows this not to be the case. No one can know the future exactly so every investment is to some degree a gamble. A whole economic sector can share the same gamble and invest on the assumption that they will make money even if this turns out not to the case – and indeed they can be encouraged to. An oil sector drilling 90 times the number of wells and 100 times the footage is going to be immensely profitable for the companies selling and/or hiring out the drilling rigs, pipelines, tankers and other equipment. As the saying goes – in a gold rush sell shovels. A coalition can form around illusions that are profitable to some powerful players who make a lot of money even while others lose. A vested interest coalition pursuing a delusion is called a Granfalloon. It is important to realise that it is in the interests of the Granfalloon to keep on hyping their message in order to keep the money flowing. (This does not mean that the members of a Granfalloon are intentionally misleading – it means that there is an element of confirmation bias in the way that they interpret and describe things. We all do this to some degree – it is very difficult not to select and interpret available information in a way that confirms ones existing preconceptions, one’s faiths).

Secondly, at this time with interest rates very low there have been very few places where businesses in the finance sector can make much money. There is a temptation to make money on a gamble and the oil and gas industry has been a place for Wall Street to make another gamble. This is especially the case as the collateral for the industry is in the ground. However, when the sub-prime mortgage boom went bust after 2007 banks were left with a lot of houses. Shifting them was not so easy – finding a use for the assets of insolvent fracking companies is likely to prove even more of a problem. How many banks have the expertise to run fracking companies?

Thirdly in economics things happen with a time lag. Even if companies are making a loss they do not immediately go bust. They and their creditors may take the view that the unfavourable conditions are temporary and more credit may be extended to bridge them over what are assumed to be temporary hard times. If oil and gas prices have fallen they may still be able to sell at a higher price because they have insured themselves by selling their oil and gas already on the futures market. To respond to soon would be to lay off workers, and break up teams that would be difficult to reassemble. The temptation is to hang on, assume that difficulties are temporary and to tell the world that there are no problems, that everything is just fine, that the latest technologies make it possible to produce at a profit at even lower prices. If one looks at the figure however this does not appear to be what is happening. That part of the oil and gas pursuing new development, and particularly in countries where depletion is already advanced, are caught in a dilemma that unconventional oil and gas is expensive oil and gas – and the market cannot be made to pay these high prices over a long enough period to make the development of their part of the industry profitable.

In conclusion

The story thus described is one in which the world economy could be heading into a massive economic meltdown. The authors of the famous Limits to Growth, writing in 1972, thought it likely that unless humanity could adjust to the limits that there would be an overshoot and collapse sometime in the future. The crisis of 2007-2008 gave a preliminary taste of what that kind of collapse might look like. The after shocks in the Eurozone and what has been happening in Greece likewise give us a picture of what the future might be like for all of us.

What this does not mean however is that there will be some general realisation, some mass epiphany or “Aha” moment when everyone realises in a blinding flash of insight that humanity has reached the limits of growth. There are also limits to the extent to which people change their basic faiths about the world. Such flashes of insight about their real situation do sometimes happen when people are thrown into troubled times and circumstances that challenge all that they believe. However, even then most people are reluctant to abandon their faiths as that could leave them even more disorientated and fearful – living in a world that suddenly appears a lot less secure, and facing a future that is a lot less rosy, than they previously believed.

Most mainstream economists and politicians will continue to believe that the task at hand is “get growth going again” and, in the vast tangle of connected events, will privilege those connections and processes for their mental attention that confirm their viewpoint on what is wrong, the other people who are responsible for what has gone wrong – and what must be done to remove these people. To drum up support for themselves elite politicians of this type will no doubt identify favourite scapegoats and enemies to demonise. The worst futures would be where these kind of politicians get a mass following, sponsored financially by the elite, and lead emerging fascist movements. The best of all futures would be where these kind of political leaders drift into irrelevance because a popular majority gravitate to those who have positive community level responses of sharing, mutual aid and re-localisation connected to ecological design – and link this to a new approach to politics that supports the transformation at the base of society. This would go together with a new politics of finance to replace the debt based money system and a new politics of energy that keeps the carbon in the ground. A politics of this type would not be about “getting growth going again”. It would be about creating economic arrangements that create security for communities while conserving resource use. This would involve a revival of the commons and a solidarity economy, making growth unnecessary for a good life.

Endnotes

1. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/economics/11305888/Can-we-ever-really-expect-to-see-the-growth-of-the-past-again.html
2. http://www.slb.com/news/presentations/2015/~/media/Files/news/presentations/2015/Kibsgaard_Scotia_Weil_03232015.ashx

On the Nature of Belief: Appendices

Off the keyboard of Geoffrey Chia

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Published on the Doomstead Diner on April 22, 2015

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APPENDICES TO THE ESSAY “ON THE NATURE OF BELIEF

G. Chia, April 2015

APPENDIX 1: THE PROPOSITION OF PREDISPOSITION TO A PARADIGM BASED ON POLITICS, PERSONALITY &/OR PROFESSION (the 6P)

Some dictionaries may define the term “ideology” simply as a system of beliefs. However, it is more useful to define a term according to the manner in which it is used in the real world. Thus, an “ideology” is more accurately defined as a rigid system of beliefs. When we say “Mr X is driven by his ideology” we imply that he holds rigid views which he refuses to change, no matter what the circumstances.

As such, the Scientific Method is not an ideology, because it is not a rigid system of beliefs. It is a rigorous, rational process by which hypotheses are accepted or discarded according to the best evidence, reason and investigation. If we say “Mr X is driven by his scientific enquiry”, we mean that he assesses a situation, then formulates a few hypotheses on the basis of the best evidence and reason available at the time (in medical parlance this is known as making a list of “differential diagnoses”). He then tests each hypothesis for validity and falsifiability and adopts the one which best stands up to scrutiny. His evaluation (or diagnosis) may change later, if better information comes to light. This is exactly how a Physician works.

Pretty much all other belief systems are ideologies with varying degrees of rigidity. Some ideologies are less rigid in that they are willing to adopt selected paradigms from Science and reason-based progressive social policies. For example, some Christian groups and clerics are willing to accept that evolution and global warming are realities and that women deserve equal respect and status to men, notwithstanding their “Adam’s rib” fable (hence women are allowed to be pastors and hold positions of authority in their church). Even the Pope has come to accept the reality of AGW and advocates that humanity must take measures to deal with it http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/dec/27/pope-francis-edict-climate-change-us-rightwing Fundamentalist Christians however remain abjectly insistent on their particular interpretation of their version of their sacred doctrines, as is equally the case for Fundamentalist Muslims or Fundamentalist Jews. They each demand their “divine right” to pursue their (self serving) agendas to the point of murder and death. This is a major reason why the conflicts in the Middle East will never be resolved. Such a mentality brings to mind lyrics from the Dire Straits song “Industrial Disease”:

…I go down to Speaker’s Corner, I’m thunderstruck,
They got free speech, tourists, police in trucks,
Two men say they’re Jesus, one of them must be wrong,

There’s a protest singer singing a protest song

Obviously the amusing irony here is that both men who claim to be Jesus are certainly wrong and the listener laughs in amusement, that to entertain the idea that even one of them may be Jesus is an insane delusion. However, by that same token, rational thinkers know that the superstitious ideologies of all the Abrahamic religions (indeed all religions) are certainly wrong and are just as insanely deluded.

Here is an idea widely prevalent (and widely promoted by the media) in society at present: that political persuasion, personality traits or professional background determine one’s ideology. Let us call it the Proposition of Predisposition to a Paradigm based on Politics, Personality &/or Profession, or for simplicity, the 6P.

Here are some elaborations of the 6P based on:

1. Political views:

The “right wing conservative / left wing liberal” political dichotomy was particularly well satirised by the late Kurt Vonnegut in his classic essay “Cold Turkey” (now nearing the tenth anniversary of publication):

Even crazier than golf, though, is modern American politics, where, thanks to TV and for the convenience of TV, you can only be one of two kinds of human beings, either a liberal or a conservative…Which one are you in this country? It’s practically a law of life that you have to be one or the other. If you aren’t one or the other, you might as well be a doughnut. If some of you still haven’t decided, I’ll make it easy for you. If you want to take my guns away from me, and you’re all for murdering fetuses, and love it when homosexuals marry each other and want to give them kitchen appliances at their showers, and you’re for the poor, you’re a liberal. If you are against those perversions and for the rich, you’re a conservative. What could be simpler?

In the article by Lissa Johnson, “At All Costs: The Dark Psychology Of Abbott Government Climate Policy” she wrote…”Right Wing Authoritarianism is fearful and cautious, driven by a view of the world as a dangerous place. It seeks safety and stability via conformity to traditional hierarchies in which everyone knows their place…Social Dominance Orientation, in contrast, seeks to win at all costs, via the ‘strong’ in society dominating the ‘weak’…‘Superior’ groups coming out on top is the goal…Put briefly, they are the two faces of authoritarianism: authoritarian obedience and authoritarian dominance…Social Dominance Orientation correlates negatively with empathy, altruism and honesty, and is predicted by high levels of the personality trait ‘tough mindedness’, which involves lack of sympathy and compassion. So strong is the ruthless emotional foundation of Social Dominance that in 2013 it was empirically recognized as not only correlating with the ‘dark triad’ of personality (narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy), but as being a member of the dark personality cluster itself… (Researchers Daniel Jones and Aurelio Figueredo) found that the interrelationship between the three dark triad traits and Social Dominance Orientation was explained by a common ‘Dark Core’. This Dark Core consists of two parts: manipulation (or dishonesty), and callousness (or lack of empathy)…The authors concluded that, like those high in narcissism, Machiavellianism or psychopathy, “Individuals high in Social Dominance have a dark personality”. What distinguishes Social Dominance is that it manifests “at a group level with a politically oppressive style.”…The primary goal of Social Domination is to maximize inequality between social groups in a “superior-inferior” order. This requires a capacity, if not a zeal, to oppress and subordinate other human beings.

2. Personality: Optimists vs Pessimists

This is the view that irrespective of objective facts, the natural optimist tends to select positive information to construct their world view and the pessimist selects negative information. It does appear that most people may be hard wired to have an optimism bias (see explanation in main Belief essay and also: http://www.theguardian.com/science/2012/jan/01/tali-sharot-the-optimism-bias-extract ). Optimism bias serves several purposes for the individual: it makes them feel better, it gives them hope and motivation to work towards their desired goal and it boosts their popularity within their social group. No one likes a wet blanket to dampen a party. Unfortunately, such “rose coloured glasses” can blind these people to the potential pitfalls and problems they may encounter along the way. The “she’ll be right, mate” Aussie attitude (or the condescending admonition, “cheer up, it’ll probably never happen”) is in fact is a recipe for disaster. Real world observation suggests that a cautiously pessimistic approach is more likely to lead to success or prevent disaster, precisely because problems are actively avoided, or if encountered are anticipated and therefore tackled promptly (compared to the incautious optimists who will flounder about and remain in denial when faced with crises they did not prepare for). According to neuroscientist CJ Bajada, “optimism bias is a well established psychological phenomenon that, despite criticism, has been replicated in many experiments. While it is generally an adaptive phenomenon, it can have disastrous consequences (such as an economic collapse).” http://www.academia.edu/7957545/The_Optimism_Bias_A_cognitive_neuroscience_perspective

Hence what is the best way to approach challenges in an uncertain future? Hope for the best but plan for the worst. Self professed optimism, apart from being an emotive ploy to win popularity in a crowd, can be simply an excuse for inaction by the person who is too darned lazy to make contingency plans.

3. Professional background

“To the man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. The implication here is that a person’s occupation shapes their world view. I can offer some personal perspective regarding this matter, specifically in relation to the prospect of Near Term Human Extinction. I will contrast my views with those of Dr Guy McPherson, a conservation biologist and relentless promoter of the “inevitability” of NTHE. In some of my previous essays, I was significantly influenced by Dr McPherson’s opinion due to his summaries of overwhelming dire information sourced from the peer reviewed scientific literature regarding the exponential worsening of global warming. There is no doubt whatsoever that we are headed for the catastrophic devastation of our planetary biosphere. Nevertheless to “prove” that NTHE is “inevitable”, it is necessary to show beyond any reasonable doubt that there is not a single future scenario where even one small group of human beings can possibly survive in the long term.

For example, the Limits to Growth scientists have conclusively shown beyond any reasonable doubt that the collapse of Industrial Civilisation is guaranteed this century. They have shown there is not a single realistic scenario (using even the most optimistic inputs) where modern industrial society can continue functioning by the end of this century, even without taking into account the guaranteed impending global financial collapse as a result of our Ponzi scheme economics. Even if we were to ignore the LtG projections, the most conservative estimate by climate scientists of a global average temperature rise of 4°C by the end of this century means that climate change alone guarantees that large scale agriculture (and hence cities and civilisation) will collapse. Not only that, the inevitable decline of high net energy sources (Peak Oil) alone also guarantees the collapse of Industrial Civilisation. The impending collapse of global Industrial Civilisation is a certainty beyond any reasonable doubt. But what about NTHE?

After pondering NTHE for two years, I was able to work out a feasible scenario by which at least one population of humans may be able to survive even the worst global warming projections, putting the lie to the “inevitability” of NTHE: http://www.thecanadiandaily.ca/geoffrey-chia-critique-guy-mcphersons-views/ Despite cursory admission that my views had validity, McPherson continues to propagate the overall message of the “inevitability” of NTHE to the public, spurred on by his echochamber of anonymous uberdoomer blogfans. Could our different professional backgrounds possibly account for our different views?

I do not deny the possibility of NTHE, indeed I agree it may be a likely outcome. Nevertheless I am working towards and promoting the idea that survival of a tiny number of humans is possible if adequate preparations are made and I advise sapient people around the world to give it a go. McPherson has not denied the possibility that a tiny handful of humans may survive. Despite this, his overarching message to the public remains that NTHE is guaranteed. He dismisses any other opinion as “hopium” and therefore he promotes hopelessness.

Why the different strategies? I am certainly not a natural optimist, hence that personality trait can be eliminated as an explanation. My success as a medical practitioner stems from my habit of always pessimistically considering the worst case scenarios in my patients, which I then take measures to protect them against, hence minimising their future risk. I am not unfamiliar with death, having experienced, as a junior doctor on call, patients dying in front of me from cardiac arrest who failed to respond to resuscitation. My own death and the death of my species are not beyond my contemplation. On the other hand I have also witnessed remarkable advances in cardiac therapy over the years with dramatic reductions in cardiac mortality and prolongation of good quality life in patients who would have been written off as hopeless cases a decade ago. Perhaps it is the latter which motivates me to strive for the survival of our benighted species, for better or worse.

I suspect that Dr McPherson’s professional experiences have been different. As a conservation biologist, if all that he has witnessed, researched, documented and read about over the past few decades have been relentless mass extinctions (about 50% of all vertebrate species have gone extinct over the past 40 years), then he may well consider the human species to be on the same trajectory and the outcome to be inevitable. The Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson stated that over 99% of all species that have ever existed have gone extinct. The difference for humans is that if we go extinct in the near term, it will be self inflicted.

What purposes do the 6P serve?

  1. The 6P is an easy model for the mainstream media to sell to the general public. It pigeonholes people into categories. It is a form of stereotyping. It is lazy simplistic thinking. Therefore, just like high-fat sugary food, it slides down the gullets of the simpleminded sheeple most readily*, delivered in the form of a 30 second sound byte between “infomercials” (*in contrast to more complex, more truthful ideas, which require greater time and effort to properly deliver, ruminate on and digest).
  2. The 6P is used for targeted advertising by corporations and for identification of “persons of interest” by governments.

This is based on the following premise: surveys have shown that interests in, beliefs in or purchases of “a, b, c, d and e” are associated with personality or political inclination “Z”. You have shown interest in “a, c and e”, therefore you must be a “Z” type person and should also be interested in “b and d”.

You must be aware of the fact that corporations and governments are collecting all your digital metadata and using idiot computer algorithms to profile you. For example, Google trawls through your internet browsing to identify your “pattern” of searches. Their algorithm then makes an assumption about your values and beliefs, pigeonholes you into one particular category of consumers and automatically triggers a suite of advertisements directed towards you. In your subsequent searches you then find commercial options ranked on the top lines or ads displayed on the side of the webpage representing suggested searches or purchases. It does not matter if the algorithm is not 100% accurate regarding your personal situation, a 30% hit rate on those ads among a billion consumers represents a great deal of money to Google and the advertisers.

The database of your searches and purchases by eBay and purchases by PayPal also represent valuable commercial intelligence to advertisers, to be used in the same way.

Facebook in particular is a goldmine of personal information, by which narcissistic individuals and the means to manipulate them can be identified. How many “friends” do you have?

Government collection of your metadata is even more chilling. The previous US government tactic of racial profiling and kidnapping people of “Middle Eastern appearance” and rendering them to prisons for torture without trial resulted in monstrous travesties of justice against innumerable innocent people. It may even have led to the radicalisation of previously moderate law abiding individuals. Nowadays, phonecalls, emails and browsing history of the general population are electronically trawled by dumb programs which flag key words or phrases such as “terrorism”, “bomb making”,”jihad” or the phrase we used in the main essay, “evil corporations”, irrespective of context. “Persons of interest” are then identified, categorised and can later be singled out for “special treatment”. This process “analyses” hundreds of millions of people more than the old blunt instrument of racial profiling, which means that potentially magnitudes more innocent people will be unfairly flagged. The fact of the matter is that any terrorist with half a brain will use untraceable phones and anonymized web browsing to avoid identification. It is the innocent citizens who will end up being targeted and harrassed by the authorities.

  1. Fraudsters such as Fox News (of “WMDs in Iraq” fame) use the 6P as a mental Trojan horse by which they outrageously distort the public perception of reality. Specifically, we refer to the way Fox News claimed to be “fair and balanced” by seeking views about AGW from “both sides”. Typically they would interview a legitimate climate scientist, then seek the opinion of a scientifically illiterate denialist, say, a “freemarket” economics professor with impressive academic titles (but no scientific credentials). Fox News would then conclude that there is considerable doubt regarding AGW: the scientific experts hold to a left wing version of the “truth”, the economic experts hold to a right wing version of the “truth”, so Fox News implies that reality may lie somewhere in between.

It is as though the scientists claim the Earth is round, the economists claim the Earth is flat and Fox News, being “fair and balanced”, concludes that the Earth could be oval.

To reiterate yet again, here is the objective truth: AGW is a fact recognised by ALL the National Academies of Science around the world (including the Royal Society of London). It is not a “left wing politically motivated opinion” as Fox News would like to portray it. AGW deniers are either liars or fools or both. The Earth is round and anyone who claims it is flat or oval is a liar or a fool or both.

Another personal experience as to why the 6P is flawed:

I too had been a “brain hostage” of the 6P in the past. Specifically, I previously assumed that other atheists would have reached the conclusion that “Man” created “God” (rather than the other way around) in the same way that I did, by means of evidential analysis and rational thinking. I therefore assumed they would also accept the rational consensus, based on decades of irrefutable evidence, of all the academies of Science around the world about the reality and importance of AGW. I was stunned to discover (in my interactions with the Brisbane Atheist group about 10 years ago) this assumption was incorrect and a significant number of them were intransigent AGW denialists and extreme right wing rednecks. They mounted ad hominem attacks against me for my position on AGW and I called them liars or fools or both. Not my finest moment I admit, but a reflection of my deep disappointment in my inability to find sensible thinkers in what I had wrongly assumed to be a forum of rational minds. On one topic (the existence of God or gods), they adopted a rational position; but on another topic (AGW – which they felt threatened their comfortable lifestyles), their self-serving arseholery trumped any rationality. An avalanche of further overwhelming climate data over the past decade have only proven more conclusively the fact that AGW deniers are either liars or fools or both.

I was subsequently motivated to look beyond assumptions which could prove false (eg. that as a rational atheist, I assumed other atheists to be rational) and to try to find a way to achieve an better understanding of the origins and purpose of each and every one of the beliefs of each particular individual, rather than lump people into categories as the 6P does.

CONCLUSION:

We regard the 6P as being of limited utility to help us understand the beliefs of a person. Saying that a person subscribes to right wing views because they are predisposed to believe in right wing views explains nothing. Saying a person is predisposed to right wing views because they have an authoritarian personality has some explanatory value, but still requires the nature and origin of that personality to be further assessed.

The 6P can be misused in this way: Belief in AGW is portrayed by Fox News as a function of “leftie/greenie” political ideology (ignoring that AGW is a scientifically validated fact beyond any shadow of a doubt, which has nothing to do with politics). Fox News followers then feel that their own views denying AGW, which stem from their self serving motivations (and indeed from their nonscience or nonsense based political ideology), can be regarded as equally valid as the “political views” of the “warmists”, thus perpetuating a dysfunctional denialist mindset.

The analytical method we outlined in our main essay on Belief requires firstly to determine whether a particular belief of a particular individual has been scientifically validated beyond any reasonable doubt, or at least whether that belief is considered to be reasonable evidence-based speculation by the scientific community. If the explanation for their belief is that it is a reality based belief, no further explanation for that belief is required. If not reality based, then that particular belief of that particular individual needs to be evaluated according to the nine major functions of belief we outlined (and ancillary factors if applicable – in parts 2 & 3 of the Belief essay, of which the 6P is just a small part). By applying that process to all the individual’s beliefs, we can establish a precise and purposeful explanation of the unique nature of that individual’s belief system. The 6P in isolation however offers limited explanation as to what purposes an individual’s beliefs serve, it is primarily a form of pigeonholing and can be prone to misuse.

GC Appendix 2 follows…

APPENDIX 2: THE MISREPRESENTATION OF “COGITO ER SUM” BY PHILOSOPHERS AND THE FAULTY LOGIC OF PASCAL’S WAGER COMPARED WITH THE GOOD SENSE OF THE PRECAUTIONARY PRINCIPLE

COGITO ER SUM:

Here is a common misrepresentation of “I think therefore I am”:

The sensory information I receive, my perception of the world, is impossible to absolutely verify. It is impossible to be absolutely certain that my perceptions represent an external objective reality. It is possible such information may in fact be hallucinatory and entirely false. The only thing I can be abolutely certain of is that I am thinking about this issue and therefore I and only I alone definitely exist. Therefore the denial of external objective reality is a reasonable philosophical proposition.

Such a declaration by a pundit (usually male) is the ultimate in egocentric blather, essentially being a dismissal of everyone else around him and an acknowledgement only of himself. Perhaps the best response to such dumb pontification is to kick him in the shins, then say to him that according to his own philosophy, the kick was merely a figment of his own imagination.

It brings to mind this limerick:

There once was a Reverend named Peel,

Who said, “Although pain isn’t real,

When I sit on a pin,

And it punctures my skin,

I dislike what I fancy I feel.

Humans are certainly prone to hallucinations and illusions, however we can overcome these limitations by performing independent observations and measurements by different people using different modalities at different times in different places (and ensuring we are not in a drugged out state when we do so).

Descartes’ thought experiment was intended to argue that only the certainty of existence of the thinking self was indisputable, however it did not necessarily conversely follow that everything else was non-existent. Decartes was a pioneer of the Enlightenment and an advocate of empirical observation, precise measurement and the testing of hypotheses. Therefore he clearly believed in external objective reality. For philosophers to hijack “cogito er sum” and argue that just because something could not be absolutely proven, therefore it could be regarded as unproven and therefore could be considered false, is an absurd stretch. Objective Truth exists but we can never achieve Absolute Truth. This misinterpretation of “cogito er sum” reflects the fact that those who demand Absolutes are absurd thinkers who simply do not understand Reality. This is mirrored in contemporary times in the absurd argument by the AGW deniers, who say that because AGW cannot be proven to the absolute level of their scientifically illiterate satisfaction, therefore AGW does not exist. The best response to them is to kick them in the shins.

PASCAL’S WAGER vs THE PRECAUTIONARY PRINCIPLE:

The brilliant mathematician Blaise Pascal justified his belief in God as follows, best illustrated in this 2×2 table:

God exists God does not exist
I choose to believe in God and follow the rules of the Church Consequence: a few lifetime inconveniences, rewarded by Eternal paradise (finite disadvantage, infinite benefit) Consequence: a few lifetime inconveniences, with no Eternal reward (finite disadvantage, no benefit)
I choose not to believe in God and live life as I best see fit Consequence: self determination in life, but Eternal damnation (finite benefit, infinite disadvantage) Consequence: self determination in life, with no Eternal consequences (finite benefit, no disadvantage)

Pascal’s Wager bears some superficial resemblence to the Precautionary Principle shown generically below:

Low probability but high impact (major consequences) scenario High probability but low impact (minor consequences) scenario
Precautionary action Consequence: minor inconveniences from taking precautionary actions, mitigation of severe event Consequence: minor inconveniences from taking precautionary actions, mitigation of minor event
No action Consequence: no inconveniences from taking precautionary actions, but if event does occur, outcome will be terrible Consequence: no inconveniences from taking precautionary actions, and even if event does occur, disadvantage will be minor

What is the similarity between the two tables? In both cases, the upper left hand box of the 2×2 table seem to represent taking out insurance, which we all do for our cars, property or for overseas travel, so why not do so? Furthermore the outcome to avoid at all costs is the bottom left hand box of the 2×2 table, the worst case scenario. Hence, why not hedge our bets?

In theory one could express the various benefits and disadvantages of Pascal’s Wager better numerically, if we could establish a probability for the existence of God and could also rate the inconvenience of following Church rules. Even using a small probability of God and an afterlife, say one in a million, and using quality of (earthbound) life or QOL “units” from 0 to 10 (zero being dead and nonexistent, 10 having an optimal self determined full life and 5 representing a halving of your quality of life due to religious rules), what would the numbers look like? The aggregate quality of existence or AQOE will be the quality of your earthbound life combined with either eternal paradise (positive infinity) or eternal damnation (negative infinity)

God (and afterlife) may exist God (and afterlife) do not exist
I choose to believe in God and follow the rules of the Church Earthbound QOL = 5, AQOE taking into account 1/1000000 probability of God = 5 + (1/1000000 x infinity) = POSITIVE INFINITY Earthbound QOL = 5, AQOE = 5 + 0 = 5 (no afterlife)
I choose not to believe in God and live life as I best see fit Earthbound QOL = 10, AQOE taking into account 1/1000000 probability of God = 10 + (1/1000000 x negative infinity) = NEGATIVE INFINITY Earthbound QOL = 10, AQOE = 10 + 0 = 10(no afterlife)

So there it is, a nice neat table with nice neat numbers enabling you to make a nice neat decision. Hence the cold calculating brain tells us it is best to believe in, or go through the motions of believing in God. No matter how you run your calculations, even with a one in a billion or one in a trillion probability of the existence of God, it is still best to believe in God because even the smallest imaginable number multiplied by infinity is still infinity. A convincing logical argument? Actually, it is unmitigated bullshit.

Pascal’s Wager is so deeply flawed it is difficult to know where to begin and we can only scratch the surface of the counterargument in this appendix. No doubt, you will spot many flaws for yourself, however we would like to highlight just a few points. The refutation can be achieved quantitatively, or qualitatively by commonsense argument.

We have assumed, as Pascal and the Church had done, that the probability of the existence of God and the probability of a human afterlife go together. However how do we know the two are not mutually exclusive? That, for example, a creator God may exist but humans do not have an afterlife, just as we assume that God created all other animals but did not give them an afterlife? Furthermore, how do we know that any purported human afterlife goes on for an infinite duration? What is the evidence for that assertion? The only bases for those religious assertions (indeed, the assertion that God exists in the first place) are the human interpretations of “sacred” texts which were written by other humans in antiquity who claimed to have been inspired by God.This mindset is identical to that of Scientologists who intensely believe in Xenu the galactic overlord on the basis of the “sacred” text written by the science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard.

Nevertheless, let us lump the probability of existence of God and the afterlife together and assume an infinite afterlife, for simplicity. How can you quantitatively judge the probability of the existence of God? You need to look at any evidence suggesting God may exist, against evidence suggesting God may not exist, multiply each by weighted factors determined by you, do some kind of subtraction judgement and come to a percentage likelihood. As stated before, whatever number you arrive at is irrelevant, because any positive number, no matter how small, when multiplied by infinity, becomes infinity. But what if there is NO evidence whatsoever for the existence of God? Without rehashing the same arguments which Richard Dawkins made in his book “The God Delusion”, the evidence for the existence of God or gods is in fact zero, zilch, nada, nothing. There is simply no evidence. What is zero multiplied by infinity? An infinity of zeroes, ie zero.

It was understandable in the time of Pascal, when proper knowledge of the physics based origins of the Universe, of biological evolution and of DNA were lacking, that the appearance of a clockwork universe and the apparent “intelligent design” of organisms seemed to represent convincing evidence for a creator. Knowing what we now know however, we can completely dismiss both arguments (in particular that of I.D.) as utterly bogus (see “Confronting the Wizards of ID, http://archive-au.com/page/2595960/2013-08-10/http://www.dissent.com.au/backissues/issue22.htm ). There is simply NO evidence for the existence of God. All our reality based knowledge points to the fact that the Universe is utterly indifferent to humanity, that the current favourable conditions on this planet for our existence have arisen due to an extremely rare convergence of circumstances in time and place in an ancient and vast Universe. Such a rare convergence was bound to happen sometime, somewhere, in an old enough and big enough Universe.

For qualitative refutation of Pascal’s Wager, we need to consider the following:

Firstly, Pascal’s argument assumed dichotomously that either the Christian God exists or does not exist, a monumentally flawed assumption. The impartial observer will recognise that his view was merely a tiny microscopic smallminded perspective of the broad vista of human religious belief, hamstrung to the extreme by his ethnocentric culture. The fact is that many thousands of different Gods were and are purported to exist by many different groups of people, with many different versions of afterlives (or reincarnations), with many different purported rewards or punishments for following or not following their particular doctrines. It did not and does not make any sense whatsoever to place the probability of existence of the Christian God above the probability of existence of any one of thousands of other Gods (unless one’s brain had been captured by the “might equals right” paradigm outlined in our Belief essay). Hence in order to hedge one’s bets, it would be logically necessary to follow all the practices of all the religions around the world (including making blood sacrifices of your enemies, flaying their corpses and wearing their skins, as was the practice of Mesoamerican Religions) to maximise your chance of eternal reward and minimise your chance of eternal punishment. Due to the fact that many religious practices are mutually contradictory, such a strategy is clearly impossible. The honest observer therefore has to conclude that Pascal’s strategy, properly applied, is completely unworkable. Pascal chose to dismiss non-Christian Gods as pure superstitions, not worthy of any consideration in his Wager. Accordingly, by that very same token, the impartial observer is also justified in dismissing the Christian God as pure superstition not worthy of any consideration in the Precautionary Principle.

Secondly, just for the sake of argument, let us say that the Christian God, Heaven and Hell do indeed exist. Certain clerics who claim to know the mind of God assert that disbelievers are guaranteed to go to Hell, however on what evidential basis do they make such an assertion? Or is that something they just made up, so they could use fear to control the behaviour of others? I personally had a memorable conversation with a Catholic priest while on attachment to a hospice as a junior doctor. I was surprised to hear he believed that ethical non-Christians or Atheists, who did good deeds in the world, were not condemned to Hell and could even end up in Heaven. Indeed multitudes of people around the world in history had never been exposed to Christianity and were completely unaware of the Christian God through no fault of their own. He could not believe a compassionate God would condemn such people to Hell. Was that Catholic priest a heretical deviant who himself was headed for Hell for opposing the doctines of the church, or was he simply a compassionate man who believed in a fair, compassionate God?

Thirdly, let us employ some common sense as to the origins of the threat of an eternity of punishment in Hell. Most parents at one time or another would have invoked the threat to their four year old child that a horrrible Bogey man would kidnap and torture them if the child did not do the bidding of the parent eg “if you don’t stop wiping your snot with your sleeve, the Bogey man will grab you in the night”. Striking fear into the heart of a naive child using an imaginary threat can enforce compliance until they grow up and wise up. In the absence of any evidence of Heaven or Hell throughout the entirety of human (or paleolithic) history, sensible adults will dismiss the threat of Hell as no different from the fabricated threat of the Bogey man. Unfortunately some naive people never grow up nor wise up.

The 2×2 Precautionary Principle table is actually too simplistic for proper decision making and is better replaced by the “Probability-Outcome Graph” I previously formulated:

http://guymcpherson.com/home/doomstea/public_html/guymcpherson.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/WISDOMDecisionMaking.pdf

With regard to Global Warming and the Precautionary Principle: AGW should never have been regarded as a “low probability but high impact” scenario. It was always a “high probability, high impact” scenario and it was always a no brainer that humanity should have worked hard to prevent it. Unfortunately planetary policies had been hijacked by people with no brains, hence nothing substantial has been done. The fact is that AGW is no longer a “future probability”, whether low or high. It is a present certainty. Catastrophic events will become unimaginably more severe in the years to come and desolation of our biosphere is baked into the cake. We have missed the boat.

Attributions: Geoffrey Chia: inflammatory language, Rebecca Willis: critical feedback

April 2015

On Belief

Off the keyboards of Geoffrey Chia & Rebecca Willis

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Published on the Doomstead Diner on April 15, 2015

the thinker

Discuss this article at the Doom Psychology Table inside the Diner

ON THE NATURE OF BELIEF or:

Why do people believe what they believe (or claim to believe) ?

G. Chia & R. Willis April 2015

INTRODUCTION

In our previous essay, Thinking about thinking we described the characteristics of dysfunctional (or unhealthy) and eufunctional (or healthy) thinking. We dispensed with the notion of “normal” thinking, because this term is essentially meaningless and unhelpful. If normal thinking is defined as the mode of thought adopted by the majority of a population, it is possible, indeed common, for “normal” thinking to be utterly dysfunctional and destructive, as shown by the many examples of mass delusions leading to chaos and warfare not only in history, but in our present day. As such, it may actually be a very bad thing to be “normal”, to run with the herd. We previously described the techniques by which the media, corporations and governments systematically exploit the infantile and reptilian aspects of our brains to impose particular views and values on the masses who lack the faculties of critical thinking. It turns out you can actually fool most of the people all of the time. Such social manipulation leads to the perversion of democracy.

Seminal publications such as “Irrationality” by Stuart Sutherland and “Bad Science” by Ben Goldacre have elucidated the mechanisms of flawed thinking and the tactics of pseudoscientific fraud in detail. Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway wrote the landmark book “The Merchants of Doubt” which described the origins of systematic global warming denialism, perpetrated by a few so-called “free” market ideologues funded by billionaire fossil fuel oligarchs. Notwithstanding her outstanding research and scholarship, Oreskes in this podcast interview

https://soundcloud.com/inquiringminds/43-naomi-oreskes-the-collapse-of-western-civilization/sets

could not fully explain why such blatantly fraudulent denial continues to be so readily accepted by large sections of society. She criticises the scientists for not being more forceful in opposition to such deceit.

The “new Atheists” such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris were active some years ago in debunking the nonsensical foundations for supernatural religious myths. They too did not provide a comprehensive explanation as to why many if not most members of society are unwilling or unable to shed the brain virus of religion (apart from stating that innate obedience to authority by children has historical survival value).

In this essay we assess the nature of human beliefs and try to explain the “stickiness” of nonsensical ideas which may have little or nothing to do with reality. The key question is this: what purposes do such false beliefs serve?

Belief refers to the acceptance of, or claimed acceptance of a particular paradigm. In theory, there might be some difference between sincere belief and proclaimed (but insincere) belief, however in practice there is little difference in real world outcomes (see next paragraph). Therefore we will not distinguish between the two for the purposes of this essay. Furthermore as behavioural psychologists assert, it can be difficult if not impossible to determine what is really going on in a person’s mind1. Hence empirical science focuses on measurable actions, deeds and outcomes.

Twenty years ago when most people may not have personally been experiencing the effects of anthropogenic global warming or AGW (apart from seeing photographs of melting glaciers retreating all around the world), it was conceivable that many global warming denialists, unable to comprehend the science, sincerely believed that AGW was not true. Nowadays with exponential changes and extreme weather events occurring all round the world far exceeding the IPCC projections, rendering the fact of AGW indisputable, global warming denialists face a rearguard action. Those who remain intransigent cannot truly believe their position unless they are insane or stupid. Yet they persist in their purported belief that AGW is a hoax. If they are not insane or stupid, we can only conclude that their proclaimed “belief” is insincere and is cynically being used to serve their personal agendas and short term vested interests. Whether a result of stupidity (inability to see the overwhelming evidence for AGW) or mendacity (realising the truth of AGW but refusing to admit it), the outcome is the same, ie opposition to the reduction of GHG emissions, opposition to the adoption of renewable energy initiatives and continuation of business as usual to the point of annihilation.2

A paradigm may be accepted at emotional and/or intellectual levels. Generally, emotion tends to have a much stronger grip over people than intellect. This is because the majority of homo sapiens are not, in fact, sapient, but are driven primarily by their reptile brains. This fact was comprehensively demonstrated by the remarkably effective propaganda campaigns perpetrated by Bernays in the US and Goebbels in Germany, which were described in our previous essay3.

PART 1: THE NINE MAJOR FUNCTIONS OF FALSE BELIEFS

We assert that beliefs should be based on truth. What is truth? It is that paradigm which provides the closest approximation to reality. We know a belief is most likely to be true when it is backed up by evidence and reason, stands up to empirical validation and resists falsifiability. The belief passes the tests of scientific scrutiny, offers the best explanation for the circumstances being investigated and has useful predictive value. We assert that such reality based thinking should be the only valid reason for holding any belief4. All else is speculation or delusion. Unfortunately it appears that reality based thinking may actually be the least common reason for holding beliefs.

Why then do so many supposedly mentally “normal” people subscribe to non-reality based (ie false) beliefs? We assert that many, (probably most) people tend to seek out world views which:

  1. justifiy the pursuit of their self interest
  2. represent the easy option, the path of least resistance, which requires minimal intellectual, social, physical or financial investment or effort on their part. Ideas requiring sacrifice or hard work tend to be rejected.5
  3. cast themselves in a positive light to impress others (especially to gain favourable treatment or special dispensation from others or advantage over others)
  4. cast themselves in a postive light to boost their own egos. They subscribe to self-flattering narratives which elevate their status, which portray themselves as “special” or “exceptional” or “superior to” the rest of humanity and to the rest of creation (ie views which verify their infantile predisposition to believe they are the centre of the universe).
  5. cast others in a negative light to justify the belittlement, ostracism, subjugation, oppression, exploitation and/or murder of “the other”.
  6. cement the bonds of belonging, solidarity and pride within their social group or tribe. This is of important survival value to the individual, because historically, membership to a group or tribe was essential for material sustenance. Expulsion from the group, being left to fend on your own, could lead to death. One useful tool to bond tribal members is that of camaradarie resulting from being part of the same sporting team or fan club. If we regard the Nation as an extended tribe, this can take the form of overt displays of fanatical support for National sports teams or sportsmen. Hence former PM John Howard, despite himself being physically inept and hopelessly uncoordinated, took every opportunity to promote to the public his image as a “cricket tragic”. He even insisted that prospective Australian citizens learned the history of Donald Bradman, no matter that such useless pablum did nothing to educate them about core Australian values such as the Rule of Law, separation of powers, liberal democratic principles and freedom of (responsible) speech.

Tribal solidarity, even if based on imaginary myths (such as the Jews being the “chosen” people of God), has historically been of critical survival value to the group, as the members had to stick together to compete against or defend themselves from other groups.

  1. offer psychological comfort, emotional solace and hope, particularly during difficult times. This is comforting function is exemplified in the famous passage from Psalm 23 of the Bible, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff they comfort me”. Religion in particular can reassure the believer that “everything will be alright” no matter how dire and depressing their actual reality. This mindset can also confer survival value, because even if a situation poses a 99.99% likelhood of death, which a “rational” person may deem hopeless and therefore give up hope and perish, the “irrational” optimist, comforted by their ideology, will seize that 0.01% likelihood of survival. Hence in a mass die-off of a million people with a 99.99% death rate, the 100 or so people who do manage to survive against all the odds may mostly be those with “optimism bias”, who eventually propagate this trait to future generations. This may explain why “optimism bias” may be hard wired into human populations, as our distant ancestors have in fact faced mass die-offs more than once.
  2. confer upon the believer a sense of schadenfreude smugness, a sense of satisfaction that somehow in the long run, their enemies will inevitably face horrible violent retribution in this life or the next.
  3. offer simplistic pseudoexplanations which are easy to grasp (but are wrong). Most people are unable to comprehend complex ideas and therefore gravitate towards infantile scenarios or myths which superficially or intuitively “make sense” to them, but have no evidential or rational basis. For example, their “explanation” for human existence is that a supernatural father figure called God created everything just for us. Beyond this myth, the thoughts of the faithful congregation are then censored, they are not allowed to ask the next logical question, which is “who or what then created God?” because that would be blasphemy.

There is of course a tenth possible reason for holding a false belief, which is organic brain disease. We mentioned unusual conditions such as Capgras syndrome in our previous essay. Schizophrenia is characterised by “thought disorder” and deluded beliefs such as aliens broadcasting messages into one’s brain. Temporal lobe epilepsy can create hallucinations of an intensely religious nature. This essay on belief however focuses on the factors affecting belief in people without organic brain disease, hence here we will only apply the nine major factors described above and ancillary factors mentioned in parts 2 & 3, when analysing the nature of false beliefs.

Unfortunately the inevitable conclusion we must reach if the nine factors are indeed true, is that most human beings are self serving, lazy, boastful, egocentric, xenophobic, tribal, fearful, mean spirited and simple minded. The profusion of brutal human conflicts and Machiavellian behaviour in history can indeed be best explained by these traits. Some pundits such as Steven Pinker have argued that there has been a trajectory of increasing peace, diminishing violence and greater social enlightenment in human societies over the past couple of hundred years (which they expect will continue into the indefinite future). Such pundits invariably write from the perspective of (and within the cocoon of) rich industrial societies, which over the past two hundred years have accumulated immense material wealth derived from our ability to harness fossil fuels. However we would argue that such diminished violence is not due to greater enlightenment nor wisdom in the population, but due to the hugely abundant resources available per capita in rich societies in contemporary times. Unrest, dissatisfaction and violence are quelled when an abundance of resources are available. When per capita resources become scarce (due to increasing populations, climate devastation and diminishing supply of high net energy sources ie Peak Oil) as is happening now in more vulnerable countries, revolution erupts among the deprived who are unable to obtain sufficient food or clean water. Deprivation was the root cause of the “Arab Spring” revolutions of 2011 (extending into 2012, when Syria thoroughly disintegrated), not the pursuit of greater freedom nor human rights nor democracy among those populations. As the rest of the world experiences worsening deprivation, we will see many more such revolutions erupt around the world, with the inevitable imposition of martial law. We witnessed this unfold in Egypt. After Mubarak was deposed, the subsequent democratically elected government was also unable to provide the resources demanded by the population, resulting in ongoing unrest. The only way order could be restored was by a military takeover. The military government will of course be no better at delivering resources to the people than any other government. They merely serve to maintain order by brutally suppressing dissent6.

Using the criteria above we can immediately understand why certain religious and political myths have such a strong hold over the human psyche, despite having no basis in reality. Let us examine the mindset of right wing Christian “patriotic” Americans, such as US Republican Tea Party members or the Republican Neoconservatives, with regard to the nine points above. Their typical beliefs, which are held to a greater or lesser degree among the faithful are:

  1. The “exceptionalism” of the USA, that they are entitled to do anything, anywhere, to anyone in the world (eg invade Iraq), using any fabricated excuses. They make up the rules and everyone else has to comply (or face trade sanctions, a CIA backed coup or invasion). American exceptionalism means that International Law does not apply to the USA or its citizens eg they can kidnap anyone arbitrarily and render them to prisons without trial and subject them to torture. Habeus corpus does not apply to “alien” nationals.
  2. The renewable energy option is just too much hard work and involves too much sacrifice. Much better to deny that global warming or Peak Oil exist, so they can blissfully continue their easy, comfortable fossil fuel based American way of life forever, a lifestyle which is “non-negotiable” (as famously declared by George HW Bush). Hence their favourite catchphrase “drill baby, drill”.
  3. The USA is the “last best hope” for the world, a beacon of freedom, liberty and democracy for a glorious future, which everyone else, everywhere else, will do well to emulate. They conveniently ignore the fact that the USA since World War II has a track record of actually undermining freedom, liberty and democracy around the world. They have a prolific history of corrupting governments to enslave their people to the service of American profits, or of overthrowing democratically elected governments, from Guatemala to Iran to Chile to name a few, then installing murderous despotic puppet leaders who offer sweetheart deals to predatory US corporations.
  4. They (the good Christian Neocons) were created in the image of God who has given them dominion over all creation to do with as they please.
  5. The “other” represent the forces of evil, whether it was Reagan’s view of “the evil empire” of the Soviet Union or Bush’s “crusade” against Saddam Hussein the “terrorist”, (even though Saddam had nothing to do with 9/11 and actually opposed Al Qaeda and it was in fact the US destruction of a functioning Iraq which turned it into a hotbed of terrorism and a breeding ground for ISIS). In preparation for the US invasion of Iraq, grunts in boot camp training were encouraged to denigrate Iraqis as “towel heads” or “sand niggers” to facilitate the indiscriminate oppression or murder of innocent people.
  6. The common views and values of the GOP faithful reinforce their prejudices and serve as social glue between them. “Patriotism” and “Nationalism” are regarded as lofty virtues, just as the Nazis promoted such unquestioning mindless conformity. (We see a similar mindset with Tony Abbott’s “team Australia”). Those who exposed or undermined illegitimate or murderous US government practices, such as Aaron Swartz or Edward Snowden, were labelled as traitors. The vicous pursuit of Swartz and Snowden by the US government illustrates that the Obama administration is, in this respect, no different in practice to the rabid, foaming at the mouth Republicans.
  7. God is on their side and as “good” Christians in the “end times”, they will be magically levitated to paradise in the Rapture and enjoy heavenly bliss forever.
  8. Everyone else in the “end times” will die and suffer excruciatingly in the fires of hell. Unbelievers and non-Christians will get their just desserts in the form of relentless torture for all eternity. Furthermore these good Christians hold the view that Jihadi suicide bombers, who believe they will be rewarded with 72 virgins in Muslim heaven, are utterly deluded.
  9. Global warming is a hoax, it is far to complicated to understand and must therefore be a greenie conspiracy. Evolution is a hoax, it is far to complicated to understand and must therefore be an atheist conspiracy. They cannot imagine a world 4.5 billion years old nor the gradual movement of continents across the face of the planet, however a 6000 year old world with fixed continents is easier to grasp by the simpleminded and therefore must be true.

Australia has its own share of lunatics who hold similar Imperialistic and religious views to varying degrees, from the Rinehart funded racist hack Andrew Bolt, to politicians such as the execrable Cory Bernardi and the anti-science Prime Monster Tony Abbott. It is fair to describe them as self serving, lazy, boastful, egocentric, xenophobic, tribal, fearful, mean spirited and simpleminded. Our most powerful tool to oppose such corrosive, indeed downright evil characters, is the weapon of ridicule. For any talented satirists out there, here is a suggested title for a series of political cartoons: The Madventures of Phoney Rabbit AKA Malice in Plunderland. Abbott is portrayed as a long eared, rodent-like creature (akin to his “conservative” predecessor, the lying rodent war criminal) whose only ideas about national policy are to abuse refugees (including children7) and to seek out money by digging holes in the ground.

We can now understand why such people reject (and are downright hostile toward) world views which:

  1. Reveal that their agendas are self serving with utter disregard for any people outside their circle of insular tribalism.
  2. Require they adopt a difficult path of hard work and sacrifice.
  3. Reveal that they are actually morally deficient or morally bankrupt.
  4. Reveal that they are not particularly special and are in fact inextricably related to that which they have regarded as inferior or repugnant or “separate”. For example, they regard the environment as “separate” from human beings and “separate” from economics, they believe the environment is an infinite resource and a limitless toilet that they can use and abuse forever. Hence they reject the views that we originate from, are part of and are dependent on the environment for our survival, labeling such views as “leftie/greenie” propaganda8.
  5. Reveal that the groups they have previously reviled, “the other”, are in fact just ordinary human beings not too different from themselves. Indeed “the other” may well be morally superior to them in many respects and certainly do not deserve to be exploited and killed.
  6. Require them, for ethical or other honourable reasons, to break away from their traditional social support group or tribe or nation, an emotionally gutwrenching act which they cannot contemplate.
  7. Reveal the reality of the situation is far worse than they ever imagined, with little or no hope for the future. This can lead to disruptive psychological and emotional distress and even despair (eg awareness of the guaranteed self-destruction of industrial civilisation and the possibility of human extinction as a result of climate devastation)
  8. Reveal that not only will there be no future paradise for them but their enemies will not get any particular “comeuppance”. Everyone is in the same boat.
  9. Are too complex for them to understand9

We can now also see why it is difficult if not impossible to pry people away from their religious and political beliefs and why logical argument using irrefutable evidence is generally ineffective. Nothing short of a monumentally traumatic upheaval (eg the arbitrary death of their own child, perhaps from an extreme weather event) which forces them to try to make sense of the situation and to confront their false beliefs, may possibly have any effect. Even despite such an event, many will still go to their graves persisting in their denial of reality, as their mindset is too firmly entrenched. They simply cannot give up the phoney edifice, the false image, that they have constructed of themselves, for themselves.

PART 2: OTHER FACTORS INFLUENCING BELIEFS (or proclaimed beliefs):

  1. The blame game: avoiding or laying blame:

a. Avoiding blame: You will recall the trial of Oscar Pistorius (the bilateral amputee athlete nicknamed “the blade runner”) in 2014 for the killing of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. According to neighbours the couple had a loud argument lasting more than an hour late at night, just prior to the shooting. Pistorius pleaded not guilty, his defence in court being that he believed her to be a burglar in the washroom, a burglar who had decided to linger about and partake in bodily ablutions (as desperate criminals are wont to do) before sauntering off with any booty. Quite rightly, the judges dismissed Pistorius’ absurd proclaimed “belief” for the contrived nonsense it was.

b. Laying blame:

To blame others in order to “make sense” of a devastating event (“something bad happened, it must be someone’s fault”) or assuage their own sense of guilt (eg their child being afflicted with autism), or to extort financial compensation. Two examples here:

      1. Blaming the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine for autism:

This scare was manufactured by the fraudster Andrew Wakefield in an anecdotal compilation of twelve cases published by the respected medical journal the Lancet in 199810. The concerns raised were taken seriously by the Medical community. In subsequent years, at least 120 studies were conducted in different countries involving huge numbers of children – the Danish cohort study alone, by Madsen et al, followed up more than half a million children. Multiple meta-analyses of the numerous independent studies were performed by different bodies (eg. the US CDC, UK MRC, NHS and Cochrane collaboration to name a few) and no convincing statistical association between MMR and autism could ever be demonstrated. It was conclusively found that the benefits of the MMR vaccine overwhelmingly exceeded any risks. Yes, the vaccine could have side effects, but catching the infections was many magnitudes worse (particularly in malnourished children in poor countries). Wakefield was investigated and was discovered to have committed scientific fraud for pecuniary gain and was deregistered by the General Medical Council of the UK in 2010. The Lancet itself eventually retracted Wakefield’s paper, denouncing it as a fraudulent submission. The mainstream media on the other hand had no interest in hard data. Sensationalism is what sells the tabloids. They chose scientifically illiterate journalists to continue perpetrating Wakefield’s fraud according to the time honoured tactic of Goebbels (if you repeat a lie often enough, people will come to believe it). As a result, there remains no shortage of people who still “believe” this fabricated lie and think that the medical establishment are involved in a conspiracy to cover up any MMR/autism link (if so, why did the Lancet publish it in the first place?). This has resulted in many children not being vaccinated over the years, loss of herd immunity and the eruption of various viral epidemics. Wakefield, the scurrilous mainstream media and their gullible readers have been responsible for the death and disability of many unvaccinated children. This is an ongoing issue, the most recent measles epidemic occurring among visitors to Disneyland in December 2014. This is but one example of the deceit perpetrated by antivaccination zealots who have mounted scare campaigns against other vaccines such as whooping cough. In 2012, more than 48,000 cases of whooping cough and 20 deaths were reported to the US Centers for Disease Control, the greatest number since 1955. Even though many of these antivaccination nutcases may be wealthy middle class Americans or Australians, their mentality is the same as that of the Islamic fundamentalists or the Taliban who killed polio vaccinators working in Nigeria or Pakistan 11. Hence the one great chance humanity had to eradicate another viral blight (other than smallpox) from the face of the Earth has now been lost due to stubborn and vicious human ignorance. Unfortunately it is the children who suffer the most, at the hands of those who claim to act in their best interests.

      1. Blaming silicone breast implants for rheumatological or autoimmune diseases:

The assertion, over many years, that silicone breast implants caused rheumatological or autoimmune diseases, was conclusively disproven by several studies including those by the Mayo Clinic (NEJM 1994) and a Harvard Nurses study (NEJM 1995). No significant association could be found. Even though many lawsuits against implant manufacturers were subsequently dismissed, courts still sporadically found in favour of litigants despite the absence of scientific evidence eg in late 1998 the Nevada Supreme Court upheld a compensatory damage award of $41 million against Dow Chemical to Charlotte Mahlum for her multiple-sclerosis-like symptoms. In January 1999 a jury in a Washington Federal court awarded $10 million in compensatory damages against Bristol-Myers-Squibb to an attorney who claimed her implants caused scleroderma. Such verdicts show that the Law can indeed be an ass.

It is not our intention to defend any corporations or establishment organisations. It is our intention to promote the use of evidence, reason and fairness as the bases for belief and action, no matter what individuals or groups are in question. This should be equally applicable to our dealings with the “evil” corporations.

  1. The 6 P: The proposition of predisposition to a paradigm based on politics, personality or profession:

This is idea that people seek belief systems which happen to align with their political prejudices (eg right wing conservatives vs left wing, small “l” liberals), their innate personality (eg pessimist vs optimist) or their professional background (reflecting the ingrained mindset and experiences of the profession they were trained in). It is a highly prevalent idea popularised by the mainstream media, but has weak explanatory power and can be misused. It is such a large topic that it requires considerable elaboration in appendix 1 to this article.

PART 3: FACTORS WHICH GENERATE AND PROPAGATE BOGUS PARADIGMS

  1. Childhood indoctrination is probably the most powerful factor. Richard Dawkins himself alluded to the fact that children will uncritically accept the edicts of authority figures, which certainly has survival value when there is legitimate transfer of worthwhile practical knowledge from old to young. However, like many human traits, this process is open to abuse by those in power. Childhood indoctrination with nonsensical ideas can be particularly difficult to shake off and may require many decades of critical re-evaluation by the thinking individual before being shed, if at all. As the Jesuits famously claimed “give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man” 12. They had certainly figured out how to brainwash children.
  2. The “might equals right” paradigm, which is generally framed in this way: God is on my side. I have triumphed over my enemies. That proves God is on my side. Consider groups A to E, which each believe in “different” gods, however thay all adopt the exact same paradigm mentioned above. In battles between the groups, group A eventually triumphs and dominates groups B to E (one group or another is bound to win, eventually). Group A then claims in retrospect they have “proven” god A is the only true god and the other groups also end up subscribing to this view, seeing as how their own gods have abandoned them to defeat (never mind the fact that none of these gods ever existed in the first place). In reality any other group, eg group B, could well have triumphed (depending on all sorts of factors including military intelligence, superior technology, better organisation and most important, sheer luck eg weather which favoured them on the day of battle). Triumphant group B would then claim their god B is the only true one and the others would buy into it. Such a retrospective claim does not however prove the validity of any god nor the existence of any god. It is a post hoc pseudoproof with no basis in reality, however it is a powerful propaganda tool which can be used to persuade the unthinking masses.
  3. Extreme conviction. Strongly held beliefs may sometimes be defended to the death. However just because an individual is willing to die for their belief (eg Christian martyrs in pagan Rome) does not mean that their belief is true. It merely reflects an intractable delusion (which in some cases may be the result of temporal lobe dysfunction or schizophrenia, organic brain abnormalities which are completely impervious to logical persuasion). Matyrdom however tends to be a rather convincing act of commitment, which may therefore serve to recruit naive onlookers as new followers.

PART 4: DENIALISM VS SKEPTICISM, ANALYSING THE ANALYSTS

Global warming denialists insist they should be called skeptics and resent being called denialists. The fact is they are not skeptics and are unworthy of such a title. The only proper, correct and accurate term for them is denialists.

A skeptic is one who debunks nonsensical beliefs (ie. ideas not based on evidence and reason). A true skeptic will therefore debunk the idea that global warming is a hoax rather than promote it.

Even though the skeptic habitually debunks silly ideas, this does not mean the skeptic does not believe in anything. In fact, a true skeptic is also a rationalist, who accepts paradigms based on evidence and reason, while simultaneously allowing for the possibility that such science based paradigms may be need to be modified or even abandoned if better evidence and reason subsequently come to light.

The astounding effectiveness of the Scientific Method which has transformed our modern lives is undeniable proof that Objective Truth exists. All of our modern inventions, innovations and complex systems (eg computer software) originating from scientific discoveries, logic and rationality are predicated on the fact that Objective Truth exists, that outside our tiny little minds there is an external reality which operates on hard mathematical principles and a logical framework. Mathematics is the language of the universe. Only ivory tower philosophers13 and humanities graduates educated to the highest level of stupidity will attempt to deny the fact of Objective Truth14, even as they type out their drivel on their electronic computers.

Absolute Truth however is something we can never achieve. Even in the “hard” science of Physics, truth is highly contextual. For example, Newton’s laws of motion and gravitation, strictly speaking, are not absolutely “true” but are merely extremely accurate in the context of the medium scale (the magnitudes of mass, speed, acceleration etc familiar to our human scale). However Newtonian physics needs to be modified or abandoned in favour of Einstein’s theories of relativity in the situations of extreme mass, relative speeds or acceleration eg when making satellite GPS calculations or in the vicinity of a black hole. Furthermore Newtonian and gravitational considerations vanish at the level of subatomic particles where Quantum mechanics must be adopted. Each of these Physics paradigms, applied in the appropriate context, is objectively true (often to a mindbogglingly high level of mathematical precision), but in a different context the paradigm may have to be modified or even disregarded. None of those Physics paradigms represents Absolute Truth. Indeed, in Quantum mechanics, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle provides mathematical proof that Absolute Truth is absolutely unattainable.

All statements about truth are actually statements about probability, about what we deem to be correct beyond any reasonable doubt. This applies to the context of a rocket scientist who calculates the trajectory of a spacecraft and makes judgements about where it is and where it is headed, which, although highly accurate, are always prone to margins of error. It applies to the context of the climate scientists who collate data from multiple sources and make judgements about the current state of global warming and where we are headed, which are also prone to margins of error, but represent the most reliable information we can possibly achieve. The denialists who demand absolute precision about the present, absolute certainty about the future and “absolute truth” about everything are merely demonstrating that they are utterly ignorant as to how Science and reality work.

Skeptical thinking requires both intellectual flexibility and humility. Humility to admit error when the evidence indicates one is wrong and humility to be able to examine one’s own beliefs. Even the famous quip by Socrates that “the unexamined life is not worth living”, itself requires examination. What was the basis of Socrates’ belief ? Was it founded on some sort of empirical observation, population survey or cohort study? Or did it merely stem from intellectual arrogance: “I am a grey haired philosopher therefore my life is more worthwhile than yours” (reflecting belief functions 4 and 5)?

Using the Socratic method itself, we ourselves should ask Socrates: What is an unexamined life and what is an examined life? Is there a hard boundary between the two categories or a gradual fuzzy transition? At what level of fuzzy transition does a life suddenly become worthwhile? Is navel gazing the only criterion by which we should measure the value of a life?

Consider children with Down’s syndrome, who tend to be good natured, gentle, generous and loving. They have a great capacity to derive joy from simple everyday life and can also generate great joy for others, especially their parents. However they lack the ability to indulge in complicated philosphical musings. Does that mean their lives are not worth living?

Consider philosophers such as Otto Weininger or intellectuals such as Sylvia Plath, who deeply examined their own lives, wallowed in existential angst and eventually committed suicide, the ultimate declaration that their examined lives were not worth living.

We agree that those who can attain a deeper understanding of life, the universe and everything can also gain a higher level of appreciation regarding our existence. The intermittent “eureka” moments enjoyed from achieving profound comprehension of various aspects of Reality while muddling through this journey of life, certainly add greatly to the richness of our life.

Is it however better to be a contented cow, blissfully ignorant as you are being led along the ramp to the slaughterhouse; or a sentient being, fully aware and utterly terrified of your impending demise as you trundle towards the abbatoir? Perhaps it is best to strive to be a sentient being who can sieze control of your own destiny and escape from the abbatoir. This is what we advocate to our readers: get off this fatal path now, before it is too late. It is no longer possible to “save humanity” but you may be able to save yourselves, to survive at least a few decades beyond the general die-off, by establishing an offgrid permaculture community in a high latitude remote location.

PART 5: REASSESSING “CHICKEN AND EGG” ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT BELIEF

Neurophysiological studies have discovered this bizarre, counterintuitive finding: that the electrical trigger in the motor cortex to perform an action precedes the electrical activity in the frontal cortex indicative of our conscious awareness to perform that act. The neurological impulse to, say, pick up an object activates a split second before the awareness we have made such a decision surfaces. Our brain triggers the action first, then we make up reasons as to why we acted later.

Using that as an analogy, let us also consider this possibility: that we instinctively understand what behaviours are required to advance our self interests (at least in the short term), such as seizing the resources of other people. Only after we have commited ourselves to behave in a particular way do we then make up “beliefs” to justify our heinous actions, eg the Neoconartists proclaimed “belief” that Saddam had WMDs in Iraq, evidence be damned. Here is another example: I know my luxurious lifestyle depends on my profligate combustion of fossil fuels, which I therefore choose to continue unabated. Only after I have made that choice, do I then profess my belief that AGW must be a hoax, evidence be damned.

Hence rather than belief giving rise to behaviour (as is generally assumed), we assert that in many cases the decision to pursue a course of self serving behaviour is made first and only subsequently is a purported “belief” then fabricated. This would explain why so many purported beliefs are patently absurd and are unrelated to any real world evidence. Contrived “beliefs” tend to lack any logical consistency, apart from the finding that they benefit the “believer” and are used to justify their despicable behaviour.

CONCLUSION

Before attempting to analyse others, it is important we analyse ourselves. Are our beliefs based on reality and truth (as they should be), or are they contrived and based on or influenced by the self serving elements outlined in our essay?

We contend that our exposition regarding the nature of human belief provides the best explanation as to why supposedly sane people without any known brain damage, such as members of the US Republican Tea Party or Australian “conservative” politicians (and those who voted them in), can subscribe to beliefs which are demonstrably false, irrational and ludicrous.

Never has the phrase “knowledge is power” been so starkly relevant, as when applied to the understanding of the psychological mechanisms which underpin human behaviour. Freud was the first to describe how the reptilian and infantile aspects of our brains tend to dominate over the rational and restrained “superego”. His nephew Edward Bernays applied this knowledge to devastating effect, with astoundingly successful US government and commercial propaganda campaigns which reaped vast wealth for himself.

If you are among the tiny fraction of the human population who are interested in these matters and have managed to read and understand this article up to this point, you will now also have acquired the knowledge by which you can gain power over others. You will now know how to manufacture an ideology which panders to the nine factors which promote adherence to false beliefs. You will grasp the means by which you can indoctrinate gormless people, who constitute the majority of the population, into your ideology. With a little charisma and marketing, you too can be the next L. Ron Hubbard or Sun Myung Moon, reaping vast wealth for yourself.

Or you can try to do some good in the world instead, by teaching others how to think critically, avoid false beliefs and resist bullshit.

Proximate Planetary Problems Caused by: Caused by: UNDERLYING CAUSES of Planetary Problems
– Mass extinctions due to– Ecosystem destruction due to– Global warming and – Pollution – Overharvesting of Nature’s Capital and – Fossil Fuel extraction and combustion – Overconsumption & excessive waste production by– Excessive numbers of homo stupidus – Bad human behaviour due to Dysfunctional thinking (eg delusional “infinite” economic growth on a finite planet) and Bogus beliefs (eg a God given sense of entitlement)

Medical principles specify that true cures for diseases can be only achieved by elimination of the underlying causes of those diseases. True cures for our planetary problems can only be achieved by elimination of the underlying causes of those problems, ie human beings who behave badly. By necessity, this will take the form of either complete human extinction, or the massive dieoff of humanity leaving only a tiny handful of survivors who are able to behave properly, who can exert a light ecofootprint without destroying the very life support systems which sustain us. Such remaining sapient humans can then pass on the qualities of eufunctional thinking and reality based beliefs to future generations. Failure to achieve sapience among surviving humans will inevitably lead to complete human extinction. The Planet will rid itself of parasitic human activities one way or another.

Attributions: Geoffrey Chia: inflammatory language, Rebecca Willis: quality control.

Footnotes:

  1. Functional MRI may change this, however such research is beyond the scope of this essay.
  2. Who tends to benefit from such a position? The fossil fuel industry. Who has funded the multibillion dollar disinformation campaign denying AGW? The fossil fuel industry.
  3. For a society to descend into madness, two elements must coexist together: a self-serving, deceitful ruling class and a gullible, compliant population. If one exists but not the other, then sanity may yet prevail. If lying psychopaths somehow seize power but a sensible population are wise to the absurdity of their propaganda, the psychopaths will be ejected in short order. If the population are naive and gullible but are governed by wise and benevolent leaders, then sane policy promoting social justice and peace can prevail, but may be tenuous. The naive population is always vulnerable to the false promises and charisma of duplicitous psychopaths, who may eventually sieze power. The best scenario is of course that of a sapient population who vote into power wise and benevolent leaders to govern them, but this population must not hesitate to depose and prosecute any leaders who engage in egregious acts of betrayal such as railroading the country into war on the basis of lies. The key to social stability therefore has to be the intensive education of the general population in critical thinking, to encourage them to be active politically and to hold their leaders to the highest standards of ethical behaviour. Unfortunately the so-called modern education system is only geared towards churning out clever idiots, useful cogs in the machinery of industrial society who lack the sense or the motivation to question or oppose obscenities such as the invasion of Iraq or the omnicidal agenda of the fossil fuel corporations. Among the clever idiots, I (GC) must include my own Medical Specialist colleagues, in whom I am deeply, deeply disappointed.

It is abundantly clear that the USA of today has tumbled well down into the abyss of insanity, with not much further to go till it implodes catastrophically. It appears that Australia will inevitably follow suit.

  1. http://guymcpherson.com/home/doomstea/public_html/guymcpherson.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/WISDOMSeekingTruth-by-Chia-for-NBL.pdf
  2. It has been quipped that the favourite response by a bureaucrat to any request is “NO”, because such a negative answer fulfils two functions: it gives him/her a sense of power over others and enables him/her to avoid doing any actual work.
  3. The Pentagon, in collaboration with major US universities, is in the process of militarising the social sciences, to formulate a systematic action plan which they will ruthlessly implement when civil society inevitably breaks down in the USA. They have titled this “The Minerva Initiative”. Their goal is to maintain, through force, the supply chains of fossil fuels and other critical resources as they become scarce, to preserve the creature comforts and security of the controlling establishment, at the expense of everyone else. Dr Nafeez Ahmed, erstwhile Guardian writer, calls it “a defence manifesto for the one percent”.
  4. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-02-14/malcolm-fraser-attacks-abbott-treatment-human-rights-commission/6098920
  5. Abbott’s latest manifestation of foot-in-mouth disease was seen in his condescending St. Patrick’s day speech to the Irish on 13/3/15 when he declared it was “the one day of the year when it’s good to be green” before waving his green tie at the camera.

http://www.9news.com.au/national/2015/03/13/12/45/pm-abbotts-patronising-st-patricks-day-message-slammed-by-irish-business-leaders The way this fossil fuel flunky parades his ignorant environmental vandalism as badge of pride continues to be truly nauseating and represents an ongoing malevolent threat to humanity.

  1. Incomprehensible complexity by itself is not a reason to reject a paradigm. It all depends on whether the complex paradigm is based on evidence, reason and proof. I (GC) will be the first to admit I am too stupid to understand Einsteinian or Quantum Physics. I find them incomprehensibly complex. Nevertheless I trust and accept their conclusions, not because they have been advocated by professorial authority figures in white coats, but because they have been amply validated in the real world. Functioning electronics, laser devices and GPS systems to name just a few, are irrefutable proof of the truth of those paradigms. There is a vast difference between trust in Science, which is based on real world validation, and faith in Religion, which is based on gullilbility. On the other hand, many of the financial machinations of bankers and their cronies have deliberately been made incomprehensibly complex and opaque, not because they are based on real mathematical laws of the universe, but because they wish to obfuscate and hide the convoluted pathways by which they funnel vast amounts of money into their pockets. They are parasites on the productive endeavours of society. This explains why poor and middle class people, particularly in the USA, have been going backwards economically over the past few decades despite working longer and harder, but the top 0.1% have seen their bank balances skyrocket despite little or no effort on their part (unless one defines “effort” as creating new “financial innovations” such as subprime mortgage schemes camouflaged by collateralised debt obligations and credit default swaps).
  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MMR_vaccine_controversy#cite_note
  3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poliomyelitis_eradication#Opposition_and_aid_worker_killings
  4. https://breakingspells.wordpress.com/2008/01/01/give-me-a-child-until-he-is-seven-and-i-will-give-you-the-man/
  5. I (GC) define an ivory tower philosopher as a scientifically illiterate pundit who attempts to explain life, the universe and everything by navel-gazing within the vacuum of ignorance. Advice to philosophers: unless you can achieve some level of scientific knowledge and literacy, your pontifications are utterly worthless and any similarity of your ideas to objective reality are purely coincidental. On the other hand, scientifically literate philosophers such as Clive Hamilton are of immense value to humanity. We sorely need their thoughts and advice, as is true for scientifically literate investigative journalists.
  6. The misrepresentation of “cogito er sum” by philosophers and the faulty logic of Pascal’s Wager compared with the good sense of the Precautionary Principle are outlined in appendix 2

Appendices 1 and 2 will be published in another post

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